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.

If the link above doesn’t work, copy & paste this URL into your browser address window:

Summertime and the reading is easy…

Summertime for students usually means a summer slide in reading skills. While you could enroll your child in back-to-back academic camps, having them read, early and often, can stave off most of the ill-effects of a summer slide.

Students should be allowed to choose what they read, but as an added incentive, encourage them to read texts that will be studied in the upcoming school year. For middle and high school students, using summer to read literary texts for the upcoming school year is an excellent way to get ahead, reduce school stress and build confidence.

Here are my three top tips:

  1. WATCH MOVIES BASED ON THE NOVELS. Watch movies based on the novels, short stories or plays students will read for the upcoming school year. The movie is NOT A SUBSTITUTE for reading. However, most students have a very limited knowledge of history and how people spoke or dressed prior to 2015. Seeing the film before reading the book helps students understand the plot and allows them to better imagine characters, scenes and voices.
  1. WATCH SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS BEFORE AND AFTER READING THE TEXT. Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed so the audience can simultaneously experience the gesture, voice and emotion that accompany his words. Students should see a film version first, in its entirety, BEFORE they read the play. After reading the play, students should view the film version again.
  1. READ WITHOUT ANNOTATING. During the summer, with the luxury of time, students should read literature WITHOUT annotating the text. Taking copious notes in fear of a possible quiz or essay completely kills the actual enjoyment and pleasure of reading fiction and sinking into the dream. There will be time enough for that during the school year.

The End of College and The Rise of DIY University

For current high school students, attending a traditional 4-year college is still the expected path. Given skyrocketing tuition and flat or declining wages, this may change in the next 5 to 10 years.