College Application Essays: To Toss or Not to Toss?

Several years ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article called “Holding College Chiefs to Their Word” in which several college presidents answered their colleges’ application questions. The article also included links to the written responses by these college presidents.

In my college application essay workshops, I pass out these responses and have my students read them as if they were college admissions officers. They get ten minutes to read ten essays and decide whether to toss or not to toss an essay. And every year, the same essays are tossed and not tossed.

So what makes an essay toss-proof?

The toss-proof essay uses the five senses, dialogue and the Hero’s Journey. A good essay works like a film and employs concrete images to show, not tell. For example, Debora Spar, then-president of Barnard College writes about a typical day in her life juggling her career, three kids and various other mini-emergencies:

“Hello, love,” my husband says sweetly, “is there anything I can do to help?” My husband is in Buffalo. He is in Buffalo a lot lately. It’s cold there, and it snows. But I’m moving at lightning speed, racing between the kids, the speech, the conference, the roasting chicken, and the dying chipmunk. “No,” I say. ‘We’re all set.” Chaos and I are doing just fine.

Spar’s writing uses dialogue and the five senses, including the sense of touch (“cold…snows”) and even taste (“the roasting chicken”) to paint an image of her hectic day. The wry humor in her voice leaps off the page and every year, her essay makes it into the toss-proof pile.

The toss-worthy essay is the opposite. Rather than concrete images and the five senses, the toss-worthy essay uses abstract vocabulary; rather than dialogue, the toss-worthy essay quotes only the writer; rather than the Hero’s Journey, the toss-worthy essay tells us with dull summaries. Compare Spar’s vivid description with the desiccated, beef-jerky dry prose of Amy Gutmann, president of University of Pennsylvania. Professor Gutmann teaches political philosophy and ethics, yet her writing is curiously devoid of specific, concrete examples of how humans should actually govern each other. Her multi-syllabic words ramble on, signifying nothing.

I had developed a theory of deliberative democracy with Dennis Thompson, which we offered as an antidote to the coarseness, intransigence, and extremism that too often has degraded democratic politics and public discourse…[W]e presented a model for placing moral reasoning at the center of everyday politics, and for making the most out of the many moral disagreements that come with the territory of democratic politics.

No succinct anecdote to illustrate her theory. No five senses. No dialogue (she could have quoted Dennis Thompson, whoever the heck he is). And who is he? Why doesn’t she describe him? Or at least attribute an appositive to him? Name-dropping only works with celebrities. Every year, Gutmann’s essay makes it into the toss-worthy pile.

Read for yourself. The link is below. A student faced with having to write a college application essay, can avoid writing a toss-worthy essay by using this summer to get started. OmegaTeaching offers ‘The Power of Story: College Application Essay’ workshops to give students the necessary nudge to write their essays and the tools to make their essays toss-proof!

Gamerman, Ellen. “Holding College Chiefs to Their Words.Wall Street Journal 6 May 2009.

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1 Comment


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