How to write a college application essay
Even at colleges where the competition isn’t quite as intense, admissions people take pains to assemble a varied and qualified student body. A few colleges, struggling to stay in business, admit virtually anyone who applies, and others, bound by law, employ open admissions. Such schools are the exception. As a general rule, the selectivity is practiced everywhere, and the selection of candidates is never done at random.
Schools immediately remove any person who clearly can not do the job.”In general,” says Muhlenberg’s dean of admission, Christopher Hooker-Haring, “students do a pretty good job of matching themselves up with colleges.” As a result, 85 to 90 percent are academically qualified and survive the first cut. Next, a college may pick out a small group of superstars, from presidential scholars to world-class swimmers. The balance of candidates is left in what Harry Bauld, a former admissions representative at Brown and Columbia, terms “the gray area.” These applicants, Bauld says, are “in the ball park” but still far from being accepted. Faced with large numbers of good scholastic records—like those submitted by Jeff, Kathy, and Pat—admissions officials make decisions using what Karl M. Furstenberg, dean of admissions at Dartmouth calls “the intangibles,” qualities that don’t show up on a transcript and can’t be listed in a resume. “This makes our job harder,” claims Furstenberg. “It forces us to look at critical thinking.” And nowhere is an applicant’s level of thinking more evident than in the application essay.
Moreover, people who read college essays for a living know the distinctive style of high school writing. Even the best of it differs from the writing of adults. Perhaps it’s the rhythm, the use of a certain word, an unusual turn of phrase, the juxtaposition of ideas—each can tip off a reader that an adult has had a hand in the essay. There are certain usages that, although natural for an experienced adult writer, would almost never find their way into a high school student’s essay. (The sentence you just read contains just such an example. Notice that the subordinate clause, “although natural for an experienced adult writer,” is embedded in the main clause. One in a thousand high school writers is likely to construct a sentence like that. It would be equally rare, too, for a high school student to say “usages . . . find their way.” Teenagers don’t express themselves that way.)
That’s not to say that every ably written application essay will arouse suspicion in the admissions office. Many applicants write superior essays all by themselves. If a student with average English grades and unexceptional College Board scores submits a slick, highly sophisticated essay, however, a reader will notice. When admissions officers have reason to question the authorship of an application essay, they’ll scrutinize the applicant’s school record and search through teachers’ recommendations for mention of the student’s writing ability. If they still have doubts, they may phone the high school for verification.
Getting substantial help with an application essay may reduce your anxiety, but it also does you a disservice. You should make it into the college of your choice based on what you know, what you can do, and who you are. Misrepresenting yourself may get you in, but once on campus you will do the work, you will do the writing, you will sink or pus you will do the work, you will do the writing, you will sink or swim on your own. An essay that fools the admissions office will grant you a short-lived victory. In a few months, the real you will start bringing home real grades. Your application essay will be history, as will, perhaps, your career as a student at that college.
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