When Sue O’Connell’s daughter asked her to take a peek at the college admissions essay she’d written, the Chicago-area mom had no problem telling her to go back to the drawing board and start the whole process over. O’Connell wasn’t being cruel, nor was she the average mom biting her nails through the admissions process.
The former lawyer is a college admissions coach, someone other parents hire to walk their teens through the sometimes confounding process of getting into the school of their dreams.
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Essay writing is just a part of that application puzzle, but it’s become an increasingly big one for college coaches such as O’Connell, a growing breed of professionals who get paid by parents to beseech their teenagers to dig just a little bit deeper to set themselves apart from their peers.
Just 500 to 700 words long, the admissions essay is make-it-or-break-it for your average high school senior. They have to be unique but poignant, smart but not smart-alecky. Kids have to sell themselves without sounding selfish or arrogant. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of other kids are doing the same exact thing at the same exact time, all trying to stand out.
“Not every college or university has the chance to meet every applicant,” says Stephanie S. Espina, director of freshman admissions at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. “The essay is an opportunity to get to know the student on a more personal level . . . a way for a student to convey their interests, passions, reflections or future goals.”
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But college isn’t just about kids’ goals anymore. Parents are involved, and in some ways that’s a good thing. A joint study by researchers from UCLA and the American Academy of Pediatrics that was published in the journal Pediatrics in 2015 shows a direct link between a parent’s expectation that a child will attend college and the child’s academic success in primary and secondary school.
But parental expectation is like the mythical hydra when it comes to college admissions. Where one head may be silenced with a glowing recommendation letter from a basketball coach or band director, another is already popping up to shout, “But what about that essay!?”
“Parents think there has to be a secret handshake to get into college,” says Jim Jump, academic dean and director of guidance at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond and a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. He blames essay obsession on an obsession with prestige. Most kids may be able to get into their local community college, and if they have the grades and a decent set of extracurriculars, they’ll probably make the cut at a state school.
“Where the essay really counts is if you’re a bubble candidate, where your grades are just so-so, and at very highly selective schools,” Jump says.
Like counselors at other high schools throughout the country, Jump has seen a spike in the number of parents turning to paid coaches for that little extra help.
For parents who want to go even further, type “college essay” into Fiverr — an online marketplace to find freelancers to do just about anything for you — and dozens of responses pop up, offers ranging from ‘I will edit your college essay” to the more carefully worded “I will perfectly handle your college essay.” Other sites are less cagey, blatantly offering to sell you an admissions essay for less than $30.
“I think that is a terrible trend and a risky trend,” O’Connell says of buying your kid an entire essay. This may seem obvious, but there is clearly a market for it. “They’re going to write something completely generic. They’re not going to write what’s really in your heart.”
Not to mention the ethical issues that come with an essay that’s purchased outright. Paying for something and representing it as your child’s subverts the admissions process as a whole, giving kids an unfair advantage, says Carrie James, an ethicist with the Good Project at Harvard University. And of course there’s the message it sends to your child — that you can buy their way into college (and who knows what after) and that Mom and Dad will take care of the tough stuff in life.
“The longer-term ethical implications are important to consider as well,” James says. “What kinds of future workers and citizens are we nurturing through such practices?”
Most college coaches draw a very strict line between advising and “doing it for them.” Their job is to get kids to write the essay themselves, just a better version than they might have drafted alone.
“My counseling training has taught me to ask lots of open-ended questions,” says Ethan Sawyer, who counsels students on essay writing and goes by “the College Essay Guy” online. Instead of asking, “Did your parents’ divorce make you sad?,” for example, he’ll ask, “What was that like?”
“I also teach students basic screenwriting structure, as it’s a pretty efficient way of not only showing them how stories work but also getting them to think visually,” Sawyer says. “Personal statements are short films.”
Sawyer has gotten requests to write the essay outright, but he’s turned them down. Mostly, he sees kids who just need a little help, some prompting to get started or proofreading on the back end. Often those kids are in public schools where the counselors on staff just can’t keep up — not surprising when you consider the average public high school guidance counselor manages a caseload of 476 kids.
The fact that those public school counselors exist at all should give some direction to parents who are unsure whether it’s okay to give — or pay for — essay help. Some 30 percent of public schools employ at least one counselor whose exclusive responsibility is to provide college counseling.
Adelphi’s Espina says admissions officers do expect kids to get some help with their essay, usually from a guidance counselor, an English teacher or a parent, or even from the college.
“Many students lack the access to resources to fully grasp the process itself, including the importance of the college essay,” she says. “It’s quite common for [admissions] counselors or directors to provide free lectures-presentations on the college essay at local high schools or on their own college campuses.”
And if kids just seems out of their depths, O’Connell has this advice: “I tell kids if you’re really, really struggling, you’re not telling the right story.”
Sometimes they just need to be sent back to the drawing board.
Jeanne Sager is a writer and editor based in Callicoon Center, N.Y. Find her on Twitter @JeanneSager.
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Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.
A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.
For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere
While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.
Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.
A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.
Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.
10 Things Students Should Avoid
REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”
LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”
THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.
YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.
SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!
ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.
CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.
WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.
RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.Continue reading the main story