As a writing coach for college application essays, I receive many drafts from students (and their parents) who want to know if their essay is any good.
More often than not, I have to tell them it’s not. After doing this for over a decade now, I can usually tell within less than a minute.
Though I hate to deliver the bad news, I’m always confident they can do way better.
College admissions officers also have this skill. It comes with reading hundreds to thousands of essays.
These gatekeepers might not know exactly why an essay was bad, but they will either struggle to get through it, find it off-putting, forget it the second they read the next essay, get sleepy, or toss it in the reject pile.
I believe a lot of students (and their parents) already suspect their essays weren’t perfect when they shared them with me. But it’s very painful to be told they are bad and to start over. No one likes rejection.
Better rejected by me, however, than your target schools. Right?
So, how can you tell if yours sucks or not?
I will share with you some of the types of essays I received just over the last couple weeks, and why I knew immediately they needed a do-over.
The hard part is that these students spent hours, days and weeks toiling on their essays. Many were actually quite well written. They had a solid structure, the language mechanics were all clean and they included a lot of good ideas and insights.
But most of them still sucked. At least when held up to the standards of what makes one of these personal statements effective.
Here are some examples of good essays that sucked:
- An essay all about the student’s love of playing instruments, mainly in the school band. It was readable and outlined the student’s experiences with different instruments.
Why it sucked: The topic was too general. And cliche, since many students write about this topic. (As an overdone topic, band is up there with sports. Keep brainstorming!)
My main advice: Pick a new topic, one that is unusual or unique. It does not need to be impressive. If you still want to write about your music, get a focus. Don’t try to tell the reader about playing all your instruments. Instead, find one moment or time when you were playing one instrument, and expand on what you learned from that experience, beyond just playing music.
- An essay about a student’s autism. It was very well organized, presented the points in a logical way and was loaded with wisdom and intellect.
Why it sucked: The essay was too formal and pedantic. There were few real-life examples and the introduction was general and not engaging. I didn’t get any sense of the writer’s personality.
My main advice: Rework it into a more narrative (story-telling) style. Weave in more everyday moments and experiences to make it more personal. Even better, start the piece with a mini-story that illustrates the main point you want to make about yourself.
- An essay about an experience the student had as a Boy Scout patrol leader. It started with an interesting story from one of his outings in the wilderness.
Why it sucked: The topic was a yawner, and one that’s used too often. I think the only people eager to read about Boy Scouts are former Boy Scouts. (Hey, I love scouting. Both my husband and son were Eagle Scouts!) Also, the story took up the entire essay.
My main advice: Pick a different topic that doesn’t feature Boy Scouts. And, condense the main story and spend at least half, if not more, of the piece explaining and exploring why that story and your experience mattered to you, and the world. The best essays use real-life stories, but they are shared to reveal more than only what happened. You have to let the reader know what you learned from that experience and why you valued it.
Essays that suck have a lot of value. I love when students show me their drafts, even when they miss the mark of an effective personal statement. Almost always there’s a nugget of an idea for a topic, or something that points in the right direction.
They also usually have fleshed out many of their thoughts, opinions and insights on what they care deeply about. Students are often able to use a lot of the ideas, examples and insights from these drafts, even if they overhaul the structure or even change topics.
“Shitty rough drafts” are part of the writing process. (Thank you, author and writing teacher extraordinaire Anne Lamott.) So keep cranking out those college application essays that suck! If you do your homework, you are on your way to writing one that rocks.