Last week I listened to a Webinar conducted by Ethan Sawyer, who calls himself “The College Essay Guy.” Sawyer is quite a performer, but he is also a very good writer and marketer. His advice is sound as well as entertaining. However, while he went to great lengths to discuss how to write a good college essay, he shied away from talking about how to write a bad one. This is a good time to raise this issue. Many college-bound rising high school seniors are working on their college essays.

In my view a college essay has one major purpose: to get an admissions officer who reads it to check off “yes” and advance an application to the next stage of approval, whether it be another reader or an admissions committee.

Getting to yes is less likely for applicants who:

  • Cannot put grammatical sentences together;
  • Cannot spell words that a college admissions office would expect a high school senior to spell correctly;
  • Do not answer the question asked of them in the essay;
  • Use the essay to make excuses for declines in academic performance that were not due to life-threatening events;
  • Cannot put their accomplishments in the right perspective;
  • Write an essay that does not have a “voice” or grammar that is consistent with the personal statement;
  • Try to show sincere interest in a less-popular major but appear insincere in the writing;
  • Put the name of the wrong school on the essay (really happens); and
  • Do not know why they are applying to a school.

These are the more obvious reasons that essays fail to lead to a positive outcome. There are less obvious ones. These are:

  • Writing that shows a lack of self-confidence or self-esteem in the applicant. If I worked as an admissions officer at a school that had some selectivity, I want to help craft a class where each student believes that s/he can succeed.
  • Essays where bragging reaches standards for obnoxiousness. Most high school seniors are not Oscar-nominated actors, concert-level musicians, Olympic athletes or certifiable geniuses in academic fields. The college admissions offices know who the real ones are. They’re usually smart enough to let the media or a coach speak for them. It’s the ones who don’t, and brag too much, that cause admissions officers to become concerned.

In trying to get an admissions officer to yes at a school that can turn applicants away, a college-bound student needs to either show that s/he has challenged themselves, preferably towards a cause or a career direction or that s/he has been through some extraordinary circumstances and come out of them successfully, at least towards showing that s/he is capable of doing academic work on a higher level. The college essay is not a place to make excuses for why you could not perform at a better level in high school when nothing was stopping you from doing so.

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