High school seniors suffer from a unique kind of back-to-school jitters as college application deadlines loom — and admissions criterion seem to shift.
Some schools have ditched the SAT (UCs); others have turned their backs on standardized testing only to turn around again (MIT); all are rethinking affirmative action; and a few are rethinking legacy admits. APs seem to mean less, especially for students applying from private schools, and captaining teams or editing yearbooks no longer suffice.
Today, students must publish research, found nonprofits, code new software, or cure a disease. I am joking, sort of.
But one part of the application process has stayed fixed for now, and that’s the writing of all those essays. All… Those… Essays…
A few of the prompts: What brings you joy? What would a wisdom tooth say? What historical moment do you wish you witnessed? Share a time when you had a conversation with a person or a group of people about a difficult topic. What insight did you gain? Tell a story from your life. Write a short thank-you note to someone you’ve not had a chance to thank. Language is filled with portmanteaus: Please create a new one. Name two things that undo each other and explain why both are necessary.
Okay, here are five tips-and-tricks from Eliot & Lamb College Essay Consulting (of which, in full disclosure, I am the CEO).
#1: Don’t sweat it
Who cares? I mean, really. In the scheme of life, what undergraduate school you go to really doesn’t matter, at least not to serious people. If you get admitted to a top school, at best, you might feel a silent little surge of superiority now and then when you name-drop your alma mater, but at worst, this school might inspire jokes about you, such as: “How do you know if a person went to Harvard?” Answer: “Wait a minute.” And as Frank Bruni recently wrote in The New York Times: “Kevin McCarthy, the highest-ranking Republican in the House, graduated from the Bakersfield campus of California State University. Hakeem Jeffries, the top Democrat, got his bachelor’s degree from Binghamton…” Tom Cruise never went to college at all, and Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg both dropped out.
If you’re still unconvinced, watch Malcolm Gladwell’s poignant talks about Ivy League schools on YouTube. He’s pretty bright. Bottom line: Love is all there is, and no one can snuggle-up with a degree. Well, they can, but that would be super weird.
Embrace the process. Lower schools and high schools aren’t teaching kids to write well. Too many graduates head off to college without having mastered the basic essay: thesis opening, body graphs one-two-and-three, counterargument, clever conclusion? Or from journalism school: Hook, nut graf, show-tell, show-show tell, counter graf, context graf, thought-provoking button?
Order Strunk and White’s “Element of Style” or “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr or “Writing About Your Life” by William Zinsser and encourage your students to use this process to learn how to write.
Colleges want to get to know their applicants, but is this even possible? Do people even know themselves? See themselves clearly? Remember those words from Brian Johnson in “The Breakfast Club”?
“Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong… But we think you’re crazy for making us write an essay telling you who we think we are… You see us how you want to see us.”
Parents and counselors can use this time to hold a mirror up to a child — this is a kindness — to help him discover why he’s awesome, what makes her special, or at least why a college might want him on campus. Students can take personality tests like the Myers-Briggs or the Big Five Assessment to try to gain a better understanding of their value, achievements, and goals.
#4: Figure out why
All colleges require a “why this school” essay. Barnard needs to gauge why your daughter wants Barnard — and not because she likes New York. NYU, Hunter, and Columbia sit on Manhattan Island, too. Barnard wants to know why Barnard and only Barnard; and, of course, that if Barnard wants you, you will want Barnard and say yes, too – to protect their student enrollment yield. If you don’t know what an enrollment yield is, Google it. Encourage your students to use this essay to research the schools they think they might like — to find out if they truly do!
#5 No AI
Do not let your teen use AI to write. I have it on good authority that, starting this year, admissions readers will be running all the essays through AI-detection apps. They’re looking for reasons to admit applicants, but also looking for reasons to reject. Don’t give them one.
After growing up in Rye, the author spent 15 years in Hollywood, writing TV shows like “The West Wing” and teen movies like “Uptown Girls” under various pen names. She then spent 15 years as a mom and founded the consulting firm, Eliot & Lamb, LLC, to support creatives when words matter. She’s had the privilege of working with a number of interesting people, including James Patterson (novelist), Diane Keaton (actress and director), Garth Brooks (musician), Louanne Brizendine (neuropsychiatrist and author of “The Female Brain”), Aaron Sorkin (writer), and various fin-tech executives.
Ms. Hogben is a NY Times best-selling author and holds a Master’s in Journalism from Columbia. Every autumn, she guides a handful of college hopefuls through the common app essay writing process.