Ask Collegewise: Controversial college essays?

Sarah asks:

NewQuotation

I have a student who wants to write an essay about his experience when he was caught dealing pot in high school. Should negative experiences like this be avoided in college admissions essays, even if the student has learned from his mistakes? I'd really appreciate any insight you could share. Thanks.

It's difficult to give good essay advice when we've never met the student and don't necessarily know the whole story. But I'll give it a try.

First, was the student suspended or expelled from school because of this?  Does he now have a criminal record?  If so, chances are he'll be asked about those things on his college applications.  And as soon as he checks the "Yes" box, he's going to need to explain it. That will pretty much end any debate about whether or not to share it because he won't have a choice. 

Assuming he won't be required to disclose it, should he?  There are no firm rules here, but I can tell you that college admissions officers are reluctant to admit anyone who has the potential to put himself or other students at risk.  That's why violence and serious criminal offenses are usually big red flags for admissions officers (so is academic dishonesty, for different reasons).  There are too many other applicants in the pool who don't come with evidence of those risks. 

In the case of the above student, I really can't imagine an essay that's thoughtful enough to make an admissions officer feel good about admitting a student who's dealt drugs.  Maybe if the kid was formally reprimanded (so a punishment has already been handed down), and has since turned that experience into something that positively impacts other students, like teaching drug awareness classes to teens, or working at a drug rehab center.  Maybe.  But the problem is that this kid didn't just do something that was harmful to him–he did something that was harmful to other students.  That's going to be a tough sell. 

Sometimes a student wants to write about a potentially risky topic in which she hasn't necessarily done nothing wrong, like a struggle with mental or emotional problems, or a suicide attempt.  Those topics can be risky because the admissions officer has to be concerned about the applicant's well-being in college.  College can be a difficult transition under the best of circumstances, and no school wants to put a student in an environment that could be detrimental to your mental or physical health.  If you feel compelled to share a story like this, make sure you show them how you've come out on the other side.  Talk about how well you're doing today, what steps you're taking to maintain your health, and if you're doing anything to help others who may be experiencing the same troubles.  And if you're still not sure, it's probably best to get some admissions advice from your high school counselor with whom you can share the entire story.

Every situation is different, obviously.  But I hope these guidelines help a little bit.

In your college essays, just say it

When you write your college essays.  Don’t tense up.  Relax.  Just say it.

When soldiers are hanging out in the army barracks, they might crack jokes, trade stories and be themselves.  But when the general walks in, everything changes.  The soldiers leap up and stand at attention.  Nobody wants to stand out, because that can get you yelled at.  It’s better to just play it safe, stand up straight and shut up, which makes sense because nobody wants to be forced to clean urinals. 

Unfortunately, that’s what most students do when they start to write their college essays. They tell the story much differently than they would if they were just telling it to a friend.  They write in a stiff and formal way that doesn’t reveal their voice or their personality.  They’re afraid of insulting the generals on the admissions committee.  They won't just say it.

When you make this mistake, you become one of the masses—a soldier standing at attention instead of a student standing out.  That’s going to go over great in the army, but it’s not going to get you into college.    

Remember, this is not an essay for your high school English class.  Tell it like it is.  Use your own words.  Don’t use the word “therefore.”  No member of any admissions committee is going to yell at you or make you do push-ups.  So relax. 

I'm not saying you should just blather on without worrying whether or not the story sounds good—good story telling and good writing mean that you have to make it interesting.  But you don’t have to make it academic and formal.

This isn't the army.  Just say it.

Words to the wise about writing college essays

I share words of wisdom from Jay Mathews on this blog often enough that I probably no longer need to identify him as "from the Washington post and author of Harvard Schmarvard."  Jay's advice is just so easy to follow and, frankly, correct that I think he deserves as many mentions as we can give him.

Here's my favorite blurb from his latest piece "Words to The Wise about Writing College Application Essays":

Quotation

 Reveal an endearing flaw…some bit of self-deprecation that will convince the college that you would be a pleasant person to have around.  Is the essay about your love of chess? Describe the day you set your high school team's record for being checkmated. Are you writing about your effort to ride every bike trail in the state? Say how you felt when you got hopelessly lost in the woods and had to be guided to safety by a passing Cub Scout troop."

It's good advice.  There's a book called "Getting In" in which the former Dean of Admission at Princeton recalls that one of the students he admitted the fastest was a kid who wrote that he was the worst soccer player on the worst soccer team in the state.   

Have you ever known someone who could admit when he wasn't good at something, someone who laughed at herself easily, or a person who was just generally was confident enough not to be ashamed when he made a mistake?  It's hard not to like those people.  And since your college essay is all about making the admissions officers like you, it doesn't hurt to occasionally poke a little fun at yourself. 

When admissions offices educate

I love it when an admissions office takes steps to educate families, not about the school or the reasons why a student should attend, but about how to manage the process, reduce stress, and maybe even enjoy yourself a little. 

Admissions officers at MIT, University of Chicago, and the University of Richmond have blogs that don't just serve their own interests; they give away solid advice for free. 

No student applying to college should write a college essay without reading University of Virgina's Parke Muth's "Writing the Essay: Sound Advice from an Expert."

And today's post from The Choice Blog shares a great piece from Middlebury College's website entitled "Top Ten Things for Parents to Remember."

Two words that can help you get into college

Two of my favorite words are "oomph" and "pithy."  Successful college applicants have oomph, and they know how to be pithy. 

"Oomph" means energy, vitality, or enthusiasm.

Students with oomph aren't just plodding through their classes and activities hoping to get into a good college.  They're high impact players.  Things are better when you've got people with oomph around.  They make classes, clubs, teams and even just lunches better for everyone. They make our college counseling program better for our counselors, too.  We're always on the lookout for students with appropriate levels of oomph. 

"Pithy" means  brief,
forceful,
and
meaningful
in
expression;
full
of
vigor,
substance,
or
meaning;

Great college essays have pithy beginnings, like this one from one of our former Collegewise students:

Quotation I think Holden Caulfield is a jerk.  There.  I said it.  I've been dying to say it ever since we read 'Catcher in the Rye' in my sophomore English class.

No messing around there.  That kid came right out and said something meaningful.

You don't have unlimited space on college applications.  You don't have unlimited time during college interviews.  Being pithy helps you make the most of your allotted space and time.

So bring some oomph into your life.  Don't just sit in your English class; put your hand up and try answering a question.  Be happy to be at basketball practice.  Thank your boss for giving you an opportunity.  Instead of waiting for your friends to plan something fun, start planning and wait for them to follow.

And when it's time to tell your stories to colleges, don't hide behind long explanations that don't really say anything.   Don't be shy.  Come right out and make your point.  Get pithy.

Easy steps to improve your writing

I just finished "Revising Prose," one of the best books I've read about improving your writing.  The author is a professor of English at UCLA who comes right out and says that academic writing encourages excessive wordiness and that clear, concise writing is the mark of good writer and thinker.  He teaches what he calls the "Paramedic Method" to improve any sentence.  Here are a few of the key points.

1.  Circle the prepositions. 

Too many prepositions take the action out of a sentence and make it unnecessarily wordy.  So circle anything like of, in, by, through, from, etc.

Removing the prepositions just makes this sentence better.

Original: "In this paragraph is an example of the use of a cliche in describing an experience." 

Revised: "This paragraph uses a cliche to describe an experience." 

2.  Circle the "Is" forms.

I never had a problem with the word "Is" until I read this book.  Now I understand that "is" and all its forms (is, was, will be, seems to be, have been, etc.) just suck the life out of a sentence.  Replace all "is" forms with action verbs, and get rid of unnecessary prepositions, and your sentence comes back to life. 

Original:  "The trend in college admissions seems to be that there is a general increase in selectivity at famous colleges."

Revised:  "Famous colleges are becoming more selective."

3.  Find the action.

The author calls this, "Ask who's kicking whom."  To revise your sentences and make them active and clear, just identify the action–ask yourself who is doing what to whom, and make that the focus of the sentence.

Original: "Attending a private college is considered too expensive by some people." 

Who is doing what to whom?  Some people are considering…  Let's revise it and focus on the action.

Revised: "Some people consider private colleges too expensive."  

4.  Make the "kicking" a simple action verb.

Original: "The need for safety schools is not satisfied in this college list."

Revised: "This college list does not satisfy the need for safety schools."

Even better revision:  "This college list needs safety schools." 

5.  Start fast. 

Every time you start a sentence with, "The point I'm trying to make is," or "What we need to focus on is," or, "My opinion is that," you're starting off a sentence too slowly.  The author calls these "slow windups." We always say that a college essay has to start with a pithy first sentence that comes right out and says something.  But that doesn't mean that other sentences should start slowly.

So when you write a sentence, start fast.  Don't do a slow windup.  Say what you want to say.

Those are just a few of his tips.  It's a great book that, somewhat frustratingly, makes me want to go back through everything I've ever written and totally revise it.

How good writing can get you dates…and get you into college

Writing a great college essay is a lot like writing a Match.com headline. 

From a great article in Fast Company:

As a dater on Match.com, you have two key ways to
communicate something quickly about yourself: a picture and a headline… Given the stakes, these headlines should really zing. They
don’t. We examined more than 1,000 Match.com ads—from men and women,
old and young. Our search yielded headlines like this one: “Hey.”
Folks, if your opening line is “Hey,” you better be hot.

Another
said “Looking for love.” Well, duh, you’re on Match.com. At least
two-thirds of the headlines said nothing—and did it poorly.

Why
do these headlines suck so much? Fear. Fear of saying too much. Fear of
saying something clever that someone might think is stupid. Fear of
saying something revealing that might turn someone off. The headlines
try desperately not to exclude anyone. In doing so, they succeed at
boring everyone.

…Some singles have figured this out. Here's a brilliant example: "Athletic math nerd seeks someone to hum the Seinfeld intro music with." While excluding, he's simultaneously becoming more interesting to potential soul mates."

If your college essay starts out with, "I have been on the basketball team for three years and it has taught me many important lessons about hard work and commitment," you might as well have just said, "Hey." 

Before you submit your college essay, translate it

A lot of the college essays admissions officers read really need to be translated.  They're technically written in English, but it's a different kind of English than most seventeen year-olds (and most adults, too) would ever use when trying to communicate with someone other than a college admissions officer.   

Here's a sample sentence, some version of which appears in thousands of college essays every fall. 

"My trip to Paris broadened my cultural horizons."

What does that actually mean?  Seriously, can you explain it?  What if the writer just wrote an honest, descriptive and punchy sentence like,

"Before my trip to Paris last summer, I wasn't exactly what you'd call a 'world traveler.'  I'd never been anywhere unless you count visiting my grandmother every summer in Bakersfield."

Now we know exactly what you're trying to say.  The translation cleared it up. 

Here's another example of a phrase admissions officers see all the time.

"I've played in the marching band for the last three years and it has taught me many important lessons about hard work and commitment."

Sure, it's technically English.  But what is this student trying to say?  That he learned hard work and commitment are important?  Did he really not know that before?  

Here's a translation:

"It's not easy to stand in the sun for three hours while holding a tuba and wearing a polyester uniform.  But that's what I've been doing after school for the last three years."

Now I get it.  And better yet, I'm interested.

I can't tell you how many times I've read a sentence like,

"In that moment, I found myself truly appreciating what it took to be a leader." 

Again, it's not that I don't understand the individual words; I just have no idea what the student means by them. 

A translation might be something like,

"About a month into my time as Senior Class President, a lot of people were mad at me. Even though I was trying my best and just wanted to make everyone happy, I learned my first leadership lesson fast–if you want the glory and fun of being in charge, you have to take the criticism when things don't go well.  It's part of the job.  It took a long time for me to get good at that part." 

Don't write a college essay that has to be translated.  Instead, translate it for your readers before you ever send it.  Here's how.

1)  Don't write like you're trying to impress someone.  This is one of those times when trying too hard is a bad thing.  If your friends would mock you for what you wrote, you might be trying too hard.  

2)  When you're revising your essay, read every sentence and ask yourself if this is something you would actually say out loud.  Imagine you were sharing your story in front of a group of adults you respected and were comfortable with.  As you read each sentence, ask yourself if you would express each thought in that way in front of the group.  If so, is what you wrote how you would say it?

3) Try to be as specific as possible.  At Collegewise, we call this "Owning your story."  To own your story means that you've written a college essay that nobody else could write.  And one of the ways you do that is to inject as much detail into your experience as you can.  Nobody can argue with the details of your story–they're yours, and as long as you follow tips #1 and #2 above, your details won't need to be translated.

             

Bad writing in business…and college essays

Here's an excerpt from Jason Fried's article in Inc. this week, "Why is Business Writing So Awful?"

When you write like everyone else and sound like everyone else and
act like everyone else, you're saying, "Our products are like everyone
else's, too." Or think of it this way: Would you go to a dinner party
and just repeat what the person to the right of you is saying all night
long? Would that be interesting to anybody? So why are so many
businesses saying the same things at the biggest party on the planet —
the marketplace?

Writing that sounds like everyone else is bad writing–in business, and in college essays. 

As Jason points out, bad business writing has phrases like, "Full-service solutions provider" and "Cost-effective end-to-end solutions" and "Provider of value-added services." 

Does any potential customer read those words and think, "Now THIS is EXACTLY what I've been looking for!!!"  No.  That writing doesn't help you understand what makes the product unique, what it can do that other products can't, or why you can trust its makers more than you can trust those at other companies.

Bad college essays have phrases like, "I gained valuable life lessons," and "I came to appreciate the value of helping others," and, "I improved my leadership qualities."  

No admissions officer will read one of those phrases and say, "FINALLY!  A kid who discovered that helping people is important!"   Those phrases aren't unique.  In fact, they're cliches.  They make you sound like every other kid who is applying.

If you don't want to sound like every other kid, don't write like every other kid.  Instead, write what you really mean.  Write it like you would say it if you really wanted to make a point.  Don't just write about things you think sound good; write what you really want to say.

Here are some examples from real Collegewise kids:

"Everything to do with horses smells bad.  They smell bad.  The saddles and blankets smell bad.  All of their shampoo and medicines smell bad.  So as a competitive rider, I pretty much stink all the time.  And it's absolutely worth it."

"Ten
minutes into my first shift as an EMT, I was in the back of a speeding ambulance doing chest compressions on
a 19
year-old motorcycle accident victim who'd just gone into full cardiac
arrest.  At some point in the next 8 hours of that shift, I was sure for
the first time in my life that I had found what I am meant to do."

"I can make a mean hamburger.  In fact, I'm a professional.  I've got four years of professional hamburger-making experience." 

You are not like every other kid.  Your experiences are not like those of other students.  Don't let bad writing kill your uniqueness. 

More on parents (not) helping with college essays

I got a few emails from parents in response to my post where I advised that they not get involved helping their kids with college essays.  Most completely agreed with me, but there were a few who swore that they helped their kids successfully (and that the acceptance letters from Princeton and Yale were proof that it worked). 

I wasn't suggesting that no parent has the knowledge or ability to help your own kid with college essays.  I was saying that it's impossible for a parent to be a completely objective reader when the subject matter is your own son or daughter.  I was saying kids are inclined to resent their parents' involvement much like they resent you telling them what not to wear or whom to date.  I was saying that it's too much pressure, for you and for your student.

The American Medical Association's Code of Medical ethics advises against doctors treating their own children for similar reasons.

"Professional objectivity may be compromised when an immediate family member or the physician is the patient; the physician’s personal feelings may unduly influence his or her professional medical judgment, thereby interfering with the care being delivered…If tensions develop in a physician’s professional relationship with a family member, perhaps as a result of a negative medical outcome, such difficulties may be carried over into the family member’s personal relationship with the physician."

I think kids should get help with their college essays.  All good writers get feedback, and re-writing is part of good writing.  Kids can ask their English teacher, counselor, or even a good friend who knows them well and will call them out for saying things like, "My trip to Europe afforded me a plethora of opportunities to broaden my cultural horizons."

But it when it comes to parents helping, it really will take pressure off if you follow my (and the AMA's) lead here.