Coaching College Essays

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My friend, and Baltimore Fishbowl senior editor, Betsy Boyd, has coached numerous kids in the college essay writing process. She has seen some of our children through writer’s block, bad ideas, and important editing that can really make a difference, when you consider the stacks of “Why My Father Is My Hero” essays that cross admissions officers’ desks every year. We wish we could do it for them (sometimes), but the truth is, the truth is better. Even for the kids whose young lives have been “normal,” for the ones who don’t have any extraordinary experiences to turn to for action-packed essay writing, careful editing can help them deliver an essay that will reflect insight and honesty, one that will put their best foot forward, with humility.  Betsy tells us here what she has done to help high school seniors find their voice, and shout it out loud, for colleges to hear just what our kids want to say.

Betsy, what are the top three mistakes kids make when they write their college essays, especially that all important Common Application essay?

–They wait until the last minute to write it.
–They don’t portray themselves authentically, imperfectly, or with a natural sense of humor. Falseness comes through. I call the strained essay the Eddie Haskell essay.
–They write poorly: without rhythm, with mistakes aplenty, clichés, and clumsy syntax. (Don’t repeat the same word in the same paragraph if you can help it!)

If you could offer our seniors one pearl of editorial wisdom to help them express themselves in this unique college essay writing process, what would it be?

Honor that process. Take time to journal, write and rewrite far enough in advance of the deadline. Which essay topic intrigues you most, and within that, what are two or three different “story” routes you might pursue? The journaling will help you find the gold from your most important real-life experiences, the dramatic ones and the subtle. Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who has survived childhood has collected enough material to write for the rest of his or her life. To summarize: Find your special essay material through journaling; refine the idea; write a winning first sentence, and a stellar lead graph to hook them; draft the piece twice. And proofread!

Can you share some details about your favorite college application essay, and what made it special or successful in your eyes?

One of my most outstanding students, who is now pursuing a PhD at Stanford, wrote about relocating from Korea to Baltimore with his mother, when he was seven or eight, for the sole purpose of getting an education here; he described learning to read and speak English, struggling with it, fighting for it–he explained how much literature means to him, without being cheesy. He described real passion. He was humble, accessible, and original. He sounded like himself in these pages. He admitted he’d been at the bottom of his grade school reading section; he let himself brag (deservedly) that thanks to hard work–mega-hard work—diehard support from his mom, and ambition, he now he found himself at the tiptop. (Even if he hadn’t become a heroically competitive student, the dramatic story of relocation is a moving one. Stories that describe well an obstacle overcome, big or small, are often gripping. Voice may be the most important element of all.)

How do we help our kids when they won’t let us read their essays?

Talk to them. It is so important to share the essay with a person who reads well and can respond thoughtfully. A third reader’s not a bad idea. These kids likely won’t write the best essay possible without revision and feedback.

What do you think about “recycling” essays that have been used for other projects for the college application?

It’s certainly a possibility. The seed of an earlier idea can be translated into something longer and more focused. An earlier essay can be re-imagined/reworked to answer the college’s published question. But if you’re going to recycle (to some degree), be sure you are honoring the application process, the question at hand, and not pulling a lazy move.

How important is the entrance essay?

I see the essay as an invaluable strategic tool — it’s your best chance to make your unique voice heard, and it can be a deal-maker or deal-breaker. If your grades are so-so, the essay might be your winning card. If you are grade-perfect and score-impressive, but your essay stinks, you might spoil your shot. I tell kids: Imagine the admissions officers, sitting around for hours upon hours reading essays. So many are the same. And these folks must jettison gobs of applicants. “Why I admire my deceased war hero great uncle.” “Why I feel luckier than poor children.” “Why my Aunt Luanne was right, reading’s important.” Skip the hackneyed lessons. Cut to the action of your life. Find a way to tell your reader what you care about, what makes you tick, and say it in a voice that’s authentic and entertaining at once. Tell the truth, with flair. The reader will want to accept your application, in part because you broke up the monotony, in part because you broke through and helped him or her know you. Based on my experience as a tutor and a college applicant, I believe the essay carries hefty weight.

For an example of a winning college essay, see our post “Winning College Essays: Redhead Coed.” Baltimore Fishbowl will print college essays from local students in the months ahead.

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