Sometimes even the experts miss the point

Jacques Steinberg is the author of "The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process at A Premier College," and the editor of the New York Times blog "The Choice: Demystifying College Admissions and Aid."

Unfortunately, I think he missed the point when he was on the Today Show recently discussing college essays. 

One applicant wrote in the essay, 


John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ was sung by Fox’s new show, ‘Glee.’ In one particular episode, a deaf glee club performed this song. I heard it before when John Lennon sang it: unfortunately I did not care much for it. When I watched this episode while the deaf adolescents were singing it, and soon joined by another glee club, it surprisingly affected me…

John Lennon sang it like a professional, but what he did not have was the emotion behind the words. He sang it more staccato than legato. He sang it like it was his job, and nothing more. These singers from Glee sang with powerful emotions…"

Steinberg commented:


That applicant misjudged the age and sensibility of the admissions committee.  You're dissing John Lennon and Imagine over Glee.  And there's a good chance there's some people in that room that probably appreciated the John Lennon version." 

I don't think the problem with that essay had anything to do with the age and sensibility of the admissions officers.  The problem with that essay is that the student is taking him/herself a little too seriously.  John  Lennon is a musical icon whose music has survived over 40 years and will probably be around for another 40.  Glee is a TV show that will likely have a much shorter life span. It's fine if you like the Glee version more than John's version.  But it would have been a little more endearing if the student acknowledged that she's probably in the minority with that opinion. 

What if the applicant had written:


My parents are going to kill me for saying this, but I just can't get on board with John Lennon.  They tell me that he's the greatest song writer that's ever lived.  My mother still owns all of The Beatles' vinyl albums and can't imagine what the 60's would have been like without them.  But frankly, I thought Glee's version of Imagine was a lot catchier than Lennon's.  I just hope my parents will still speak to me if they read this."

See the difference?

You don't have to guess what admissions officers will and won't like.  You just have to be yourself and show some quality of thinking, a mature perspective in which you recognize that the world extends beyond yourself.  And if you like Glee more than you like The Beatles, that's fine. 


The three most common college essay mistakes

For seniors who are still working on college essays, make sure you avoid the three most common college essay mistakes. 

1.  Injecting deep meaning into an event that wasn't all that meaningful at the time.

2.  Claiming an experience taught you a valuable lesson you didn't actually learn, or don't seem to be using today.

3.  Writing the essay in a formal and academic tone that doesn't sound like you.

All three of those mistakes come from students trying too hard to be impressive.  Worry less about what you think they want to hear; worry more about what you want to say. 

You can find even more advice in our video, “How to Write Great College Essays.”  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.

Five writing reminders

I had to write two very short proposals yesterday and it took me all day to do it.  I couldn't get the wording right.  I didn't like how it sounded.  I couldn't compress it into the allotted maximum number of words.  It was a frustrating exercise. 

But that frustration was a reminder that good writing is supposed to be hard.  If it wasn't, everybody would be doing it.  And I pushed through it by following a lot of the same advice I give to kids when they're writing their college essays. 

1.  Say exactly what you mean.

Clarity is more important than anything else.  Don't leave any room for misinterpretation–come right out and say what you want to say.  And for the love of everything, get to the point.  No long windups.   

2.  Sound like a human. 

When you write, "Attached, please find the attached attachment," you sound like a machine.  Always sound like a human being.  

3.  Sound like you.

Your writing shouldn't just sound like a human; it should also sound like you.  Some people might actually say the words, "Thank you very much for considering my proposal."  If you'd be more likely to say the words, "Thanks so much for considering me," why not just write that?

4.  Don't write a page when you only need a paragraph. 

Brevity is a mark of good writing.  The proposals required that I describe my offering in 50 words or less.  That's a brilliant requirement, because for just about everybody, limiting something to 50 words is much harder than coming up with 200 words of description.  You've got to get rid of everything that's not absolutely necessary and get right to the point.  You have to constantly ask yourself, "What's really important?", which is the most important question you can ask about anything. 

5.  Editing is harder than writing.

Getting it down on the page isn't the hard part.  The editing–the rewritting, whittling down, refining and compressing–that's the hard part.  It's important to remember that when you've been working on the same sentence for 30-minutes or the same paragraph for an hour.  You're not lagging; you're editing.   


The allure of the unexpected

One of the best ways to keep someone interested in your story is to lead with something unexpected.  This is not an example of that:

"The marching band practices every day after school for two hours.  It's very arduous, but necessary if we want to perfect our formations." 

Nobody would be surprised to learn that. But if you said,

"A polyester band uniform actually doubles in weight when it's wet.  Every time we practice in the rain, I gain 10 pounds for the next two hours."

Now you've got my attention.

When you share something people didn't know yet, it makes them want to know more.  It's like an intellectual itch they need to scratch.  That's what being interesting means–people want to hear and learn more from you.

Of course, there's an art to recognizing what people might be interested to know about and how much they can take.  If you drone on for twenty minutes about how to get to the expert levels in your favorite video game, a non-gamer is going to lose interest.  But if you told me about life as a game tester, when you're paid to do nothing but play video games 8-hours a day, I'd be intrigued because that's something I could never imagine doing.

So when you're writing your college essays, doing a college interview, or even just having a conversation with someone you've just met, get them interested by sharing something they probably wouldn't have guessed.  Give them the unexpected part of the story.

Don’t take anonymous college essay advice

You wouldn't just walk up to a random stranger on the street and ask him what you should write your college essay about.  But a lot of kids are actually doing the online version of that.

Pick a college, any college with an essay prompt on the application.  Type that prompt into Google and you'll find students who…

1)  …have posted their essays to open forums and are seeking feedback.

2)  …are asking for suggestions about what to write.

When you open up your college essays to the world wide web like this, you have no idea who's giving you the advice.  It could be a kid, a parent, or some troll who just lurks on the forums.  And whoever it is may or may not have the slightest idea what they're talking about.

There are plenty of people you can go to for advice who not only know know about college essays, but who also have a vested interest in seeing you succeed.  Ask your counselor.  Ask your English teacher.  Ask your older brother or sister who's already in college.  Ask a professional, someone who will be accountable for the advice. 

But don't take college essay advice from a stranger.

College Essays should be about life’s smaller slices

It's good to see that the press still taps the well of admissions wisdom from the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, Ted O'Neil.

From US News and World Report's The Right Way to Pitch Yourself to Schools


In truth, he says, what you write about "doesn't have to be a week in Africa. It can be you were a clerk at Safeway for the summer and that changed the way you view race relations or the environment." Adds Ted O'Neill, the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago: "Turning points in their lives are kind of premature for kids of this age…We're looking for a thoughtful, earnest presentation that shows complicated interests and thinking…This can be achieved in stories reflecting on life's smaller slices—why you like helping your dad fix up old cars on the weekend, being the only boy in a family of seven girls, why you like to write birthday limericks."

“College Admissions Live” premieres tonight

Tonight, we're giving online television a try with:

"Why Good Kids Write Bad College Essays"
with hosts Kevin McMullin and Arun Ponnusamy
Wednesday, September 22
Live 6 p.m. PST  What time is that in my time zone?
At our online channel:

This won't be a polished studio production–just two college admissions experts and a webcam.  But what we may lack in production value, we'll make up for with great advice.  We hope you'll join us. 

Join us live online for “Why Good Kids Write Bad College Essays”

We're about to try something new and exciting, and we're hoping you'll be a part of it.

This week, we're debuting College Admissions Live, a free session on the web where our experts will discuss the college admissions process.  We’ll stream it live from our webcam, and viewers will be able to ask us questions via a text chat that will run alongside the video.  Our first session will focus on writing great college essays.

"Why Good Kids Write Bad College Essays"
with hosts Kevin McMullin and Arun Ponnusamy
Wednesday, September 22
Live @ 6 p.m. PST 
Free at our new online channel

What we'll cover
Too many good kids write bad college essays—stories about life lessons learned playing sports or how volunteering at a blood drive taught them the importance of helping others.  Every good kid has a better tale to tell.  We’ll show you how.  Join us to learn…

    * What admissions officers really want (and don't want) to read
    * Overused topics you really should avoid
    * How to find and write your best stories

We’ll talk for about 30 minutes, then take questions for 15 minutes.
About the hosts
Kevin McMullin is the founder and president of Collegewise.  He also writes this blog and gets self-conscious when writing about himself in the third person like this.  Arun Ponnusamy is the founder and college counselor at Open Road Education.  He worked as an assistant director of admissions at the University of Chicago and Caltech, and as an admissions reader at UCLA.  He has read approximately 1,273 bad college essays about blood drives.
How to watch
Just visit our channel on Wednesday, September 22 at 6 p.m. PST. (What time is that in my time zone?)
No reservations required. Just drop in at the start time.  If you'd like us to send you an email reminder the day of the show, just register here.
We're not promising great production value (it will just be the two of us in front of a webcam).  But we can promise great advice and hope you'll tune in to join us.

Where college essays are “brutally bland and predictable”


Most of the roughly thirty-six thousand essays that pass before the bleary eyes of the Berkeley admissions staff each year follow the well-worn format of these two examples: choose your most impressive activity; tell a story about how the activity helped you develop a trait you think the admissions officers care about; if possible, work in passing references to other items from your brag sheet.  Bonus points are awarded, of course, if you can start the essay with a dash of first-person, new-journalism-style description ('I was out of my element…').  After reading a collection of these essays while researching this book, I developed some serious sympathy for the Berkeley admissions staff.  This stuff is brutally bland and predictable."

-Cal Newport

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