College Admissions Essays:
How to Connect with Your Reader
I’ve talked about this already, but here is more scoop about your college application essay “audience,” and it’s a tough crowd: college admissions officers read zillions of these college application essays and most are BORING, and get tossed in the boring pile!!!
If you don’t believe me, here are some quotes from some honest (notice they weren’t quoted by name!) admissions folks gathered by an inspired, veteran English teacher named Jim Burke.
As an English teacher, Burke says he often is asked to help students on their essays, and he understands that many of them are either way too long, do not answer the prompt and/or are just like all the other essays.
He quotes in a Web appendix to his book,The English Teacher’s Companion:
“Another admissions officer I interviewed said: ‘There are three things you don’t ever want to watch being made: one is sausage, one is legislation, and the other is college admissions because the process is sometimes so random, given the number of kids that come across our desks.
I read a thousand applications, each one of which has to have an essay, and I give each application about ten minutes in the first read-through. Anything kids can do to connect with me as the reader, to make them stand out in that essay, which in many cases is the most important piece of the puzzle, helps me.’
‘When we read them, though the scale is 1 to 10, we mostly calibrate it to a 2, 5, and 8: 2 means the essay negatively affects the student’s application; 5 means it does nothing to advance the application; 8 means it moves it forward toward acceptance, though other factors are, of course, considered.’
If you want help bumping up your college application essay or personal statement, read my post on How to Bump Up a Dull Essay. Or, if you are just getting started, use my super helpful Jumpstart Guide.
The person reading your fabulous college admissions essay most likely has already read about a dozen or more, and still has an equal number or more to go. By the 20th essay, they are having trouble focusing. Their heads are nodding off. They need more coffee.
So how will this person feel when they read the first sentence or two of your essay? Will they groan silently to themselves? Or will they perk up and pay attention?
The “audience” or readers of your essay most likely will be comprised of at least one or more members of an “admissions committee” from the college or university. They have been selected either because they are considered strong writers themselves, or have a heightened sense of who their school is looking to admit.
I would say, don’t waste your time targeting your piece to any personality or demographic. Basically, think of your reader as someone with a mature, intelligent sensibility who mainly wants to read an interesting piece of writing that also tells them about an equally interesting person. Picture one of your teachers. A friendly one!
My main suggestion would be to keep in mind that these college application folks have read zillions of these college admissions essays–so whatever you can do to engage them is worth a shot! If you need help getting started, try my Jumpstart Guide.
There are a ton of books on how to write these essays. They are filled with great advice, but can also be overwhelming. Here is how you can use them to help your student in a non-threatening way (I did this with my senior daughter and it helped jumpstart the process):
Either buy or check out some of the essay-writing guide books (Buy them used on Amazon for cheap!). Find the sections that feature sample essays. Read through the essay titles and skim essays that look interesting or might relate to a topic your student would pick. If you find one or a couple that you liked reading, and think your student might find them inspiring—either for how it is written, or how the introduction is a “grabber,” or the topic is relevant—put a post-it to mark the page.
When the time is right, offer the book and suggest your student read the ones your flagged. Resist the urge to lecture them. Just set it on their desk and leave the room. If nothing else, it might get them started, and they will find their own favorite essays, and even read some of the general advice and tips in the book as well. All on their own terms.
Remember, these essay assignments can be so daunting to students. They are told that 500 words can be admissions deal-breakers, and are their one chance to set themselves apart from the pack. That’s a lot of pressure on one little piece of writing! Also, many students have never written this type of essay—using the first person and being asked to reveal something about themselves.
I believe the best guide and inspiration can be a good example or two. Suddenly, the student might realize that they also have a good story to tell, or that they can write something like that. The abstract task feels more manageable, and they are free to move forward.
Also, if you hope to be tapped to help them further along in the process, it’s a good idea to read these books to educate yourself on how to write these essays. If you get the honor of being allowed to read a rough draft, or answer a specific question, or proof their final copy, you will be better prepared to direct them in the right way. I’m a writer, and they helped me immensely!
Some titles I like:
- College Admission Essays for Dummies, Geraldine Woods
- Mcgraw-Hill’s Writing an Outstanding College Application Essay
- Best College Admission Essays (Peterson’s Best College Admission Essays)by Stewart & Muc
- 100 Successful College Application Essays (Second Edition)by Harvard Independent
- How to Write a Winning College Application Essay, Revised 4th Editionby Michael James Mason
Parents and College Admissions Essays: In or Out?
In theprevious post, I gave “helpful” parents some pointers on how to help students with their college admissions essays. Now, it’s your turn to help your own parents. Here are some tips:
- First, understand that your parents are on your side. They just want you to have success, and think they can help you. It’s your job, however, to show them how to help.
- The best way to fend off pesky parents is to prove to them that you have it covered. Tell them where you are at in the process, and that you have put together a timeline for yourself. Simply knowing that you have started will relieve anxiety.
- Some parents, however, are certain they can help you write your essay. This is where you need to help them understand how critical it is that this is your essay, in your words and voice alone. Tell them this, nicely.
- Another way to shield yourself from parental intervention is to see if there is a place or specific role where they can help you, but not take over the process. No one knows you or your life like your parent. If you need help with topic ideas, ask them if they would brainstorm with you. Set a time when you both are in a good mood and not tired.
- Once you have a rough draft, and trust they won’t overtake your piece, let them read it and ask for feedback. Again, watch your moods. Ask them to just tell you what they like, and any places that are unclear or might need more work. Finally, it never hurts to have your parents read your final version to help check for punctuation, spelling and other errors.
- Writing is hard, and can make you grumpy. This is usually about the point where your mom or dad will come in your room to “help,” and you want to strangle them. Instead of yelling at them to “Back off!,” try just telling them that you are working on the essay, and will ask them for help when you need it. Say it nicely, and they will magically go away.
- Remember, no one else will care as much about your essay as your parent. If you let them help a little, they might not feel the need to help too much.
Ready to start writing your essays? Try my Jumpstart Guide!
Here are some tips for parents who just want to help…The trick is knowing when, to intervene:
- Some students are self-motivated, driven and will knock out these essays with ease. Leave them alone! Other students (the majority) could use a little help. However, unless you have a harmonious parent/teenager relationship where you are accepted in a “teaching” role, I would advise only intervening if they ask, or if you feel they are falling way behind.
- Help them set up a simple schedule or deadlines, if they think that will help.
- Back off it they are tired, grumpy or tell you to go away.
- If they are having trouble getting started, help them brainstorm ideas. Initiate this exchange only when the setting is relaxed and the mood is right! Talk about the qualities/characteristics that define them. Talk about their main interests, hobbies, experiences, etc. Help them recall specific personal stories related to those topics, “Remember the time you…” Write down these ideas.
- Be a sounding board. Read their essay in progress, if they allow it. Give lots of encouragement. Tell them what parts you like and why. Gently, point out parts that are unclear or are not supported by examples. Remember how it feels to have your personal work critiqued or criticized!
- Help them understand that writing these essays is a process. Tell them it is normal to work on their essay for a while, then go do something else, then come back and work some more. Urge them to get feedback from teachers, friends, parents, etc. Let them know it is normal to write several versions to get it right.
…if you choose to accept this mission, well, good luck!
He admitted up front that he had blown it. The assignment, to write about homelessness for his human ecology class, was given several weeks ago. But he had been absent and failed to find out what he missed, let alone do the catch up research.
Anyway, the rough draft was due the next day. He said he had just spent the last hour staring at his computer screen, trying to write the introduction. He was totally lost and starting to panic.
I remembered the story that one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, said inspired the title for her popular book on writing, Bird by Bird.
She said years ago her younger brother, then 10, was trying to write a report on birds that he had had three months to write. It was due the next day. Her brother was surrounded by books on birds, binder paper, pens and paper, and was totally overwhelmed and close to tears.
Lamott’s dad, a famous writer himself, put his arm around his son and told him, “Just take it bird by bird.”
My son had a similarly overwhelming assignment. How do you get your arms around “homelessness”? The subject fills thousands of books alone! So I gave my son similar advice: Don’t try to take on the whole subject at once. You need to break it down into smaller ideas.
Then plug those into an outline. And never, ever, start with your introduction. You have to know what you are going to say first.
When faced with those open-ended college admissions essay questions–along with the impossible expectation that you define the essence of who you are in 500 words–you probably will experience similar feelings of helplessness, dread and panic.
Just remember: Take a deep breath. Relax. Think “bird by bird.” All you need is a plan!
My name is Janine Robinson and I am a professional writer, editor and journalist. For the last 20 years, I have reported for top daily newspapers, been the editor for a monthly lifestyle magazine and worked for an Internet company for teachers.
Currently, I am working toward my credential to teach secondary English in California.
I also have two teenagers, both of whom are starting to consider college. My daughter, a junior, has already started taking the standardized tests (including the essays), as well as begun working on her college entrance essays.
In the past couple years, I have taught creative writing classes during the summer, as well as done some private tutoring for Language Arts.
I am planning on offering some informal writing classes/workshops this summer to local teenagers who have started their college quest. One of the classes would focus on writing those dreaded college entrance essays.
I am not a techno whiz, but I thought it might be interesting to start a blog so I can share what I know about writing, as well as what I learn about tips, ideas and inspirational advice on writing college-related essays.
So stay tuned. Maybe if we work together on these essays it won’t have to be so painful!