What types of and how many essays are students expected to produce? What makes for good, compelling essays, and how can you put yourself on a path to producing them? In this webinar, one of our essay experts will guide you through the college essay. From brainstorming, to drafting, to editing and polishing, the best essays result from the best processes. That’s what we cover in today’s webinar- the anatomy of an awesome college application essay. You’ll learn about the right way to go about writing an essay, what admissions officers are looking to see, and some major Do’s and Don’ts. You can also read the full webinar transcript below.
Welcome everyone to The Anatomy of an Awesome Essay, as Sam mentioned, and that’s exactly what we’re gonna talk about tonight. I think a couple weeks ago in our last webinar, we talked a lot about the college admissions process more broadly. We’ve been kind of covering that sort of thing all summer as that is what is important to a lot, a lot, a lot of our students. So hopefully today we can go in depth on the essay itself on what you should be doing in order to create a good one and what you should not be doing in order to create a good one, and basically how essays are viewed by the people that read them, by the admissions officers that you are attempting to impress and wow and convince that you’re gonna be an awesome fit or an excellent student at their school.
Like Sam said, my name is Jesse Pizarro. I have been working at C2 for quite some time now and maybe one of my favorite things to do is help students with this college application process. It is something that can be really tricky to navigate. It is something where there’s a lot of misinformation and rumor and all kinds of stuff drifting around that seniors hear. So being able to sort of separate fact from fiction and really help students put their best foot forward and then see them succeed [inaudible 00:01:18] helped students get into some of the top schools in the country, which is really gratifying, obviously, more so for them than for me, but for me as well. It’s good to hear.
This is basically what we’re gonna cover tonight. We’re gonna run through there’s a couple different ways of thinking about an essay process. This is probably the more traditional way with which you are familiar, and it’s a good way. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this process. I think this is sort of another way of thinking about the essay writing process that fits right alongside this. As we go, I’ll talk about how this is essentially brainstorming, or this is a form of brainstorming, but this is how you brainstorm well, or how to pre-write, how to draft, etc.
So, with that, we’re gonna go ahead and jump right into it and start with evaluating prompts, and this is actually one of the more important parts of writing your essay is determining what exactly it is that you need to write or what exactly it is that you’re supposed to be doing in creating this essay and reading a prompt and being able to determine from that sort of what the people who wrote that prompt intended, what their goals were, and therefore what they’re expecting of you or what they’re going to be evaluating you on is really, really important.
Now, there’s kind of two levels of what a prompt means and that’s what we’re trying to get at here with these bullets. There’s this difference between what the prompt says literally and what the prompt is really asking for. We talk about the spirit of the prompt in just a minute here, and we’ll get into what exactly that means. There’s also though the sort of what is required versus what is suggested, what they actually expect you to do or … have you ever had a teacher who said something is optional, but then made it very, very clear that he or she expected every single person to do that optional homework assignment or read that optional summer reading book or whatever? You kind of are getting a sense for what they mean by suggested here. Suggested is very, very close to required without being exactly the same.
We’re gonna take a look at some prompts here to try and get a sense for what their spirit might be, what they’re really asking you to do. Here you see, this is a slightly older version of one of the common act prompts that talks about the transition from childhood to adulthood or from immaturity to maturity. They reference very specific things in the prompt. Start with an accomplishment or an event and then they use the word marked, and if something marks a transition, it means that it is important, it is significant, it is an indicator of that transition. It’s not simply something that happened along the way. It is something that you would point out or point to as being important, as mattering.
So in order to demonstrate that to a reader, in order for a reader to believe you, you have to cover both, what you were like before, what you were like after, and it has to become clear to the reader that those two things are very different, that this really was a transition, that you really were a different person or identifiably different as a result of this thing or after this thing. That’s a classic example of what we call a you question, where the goal of it is to introduce you as a person, maybe as a student, but much more so as a person to the readers, to the recipients of your essay.
There’s a couple other prompt types that we’ll cover that you can see right there on the screen in just a minute here. Here you see another example of a you question. Tell us about you, tell us your story. We’ll go into some depth about what makes for a good you essay, but I think that’s the most important thing is that it is about you and you would be very, very surprised at how many students struggle with this part. They write a you essay that’s about their mentor or about their coach or about their teacher, or someone else who had a big effect on them and they think they’re writing an essay that’s sort of about how this person affected the student, but really they’re writing an essay about the person. If you fall into that trap, you haven’t respected the spirit of this prompt. You haven’t done as good of a job as you might have engaging with what the prompt is really asking you to do.
The second type of question is probably the hardest because there’s a lot less direction implied. You see a question like Where is Waldo? Really, obviously they’re not asking you where Waldo really is, they don’t want you to answer that question literally. What they want you to do is come up with a spin on this, a take on this, a version of this that gives them a sense for how you think and how that’s interesting and how that’s creative and how that’s cool. As you can see right up there, we want to see a glimpse of your imagination, your creative problem solving skills.
Well the creative problem that you have been posed is this kind of weird essay prompt, where it’s not at all straightforward how you should answer or what you should talk about. There’s certainly a wider variety of appropriate essays in response to this, but you shouldn’t take this to mean that there is no prompt here or that you can write whatever you want, or that you can take one of your other essays and just stick it in here because, I mean, who cares? It’s just a crazy prompt. No. Actually, the students who do really well on this come up with almost like a restatement of this prompt that does apply to them that allows them to write an interesting, imaginative, and perhaps creative essay in response to it. Now, that’s not easy. Like I said, for the vast majority of students, this is the hardest kind of essay, but that doesn’t mean that we should run away from it or be scared of it. It means that we should set aside more time for it and leave ourselves more time to brainstorm and to reject less creative ideas so that we can finally get to a good one.
Last kind of essay is probably the easiest to identify. It’s the most obviously that, oh yeah, this is a this kind of essay, but that doesn’t make it easy to answer, necessarily, for a couple reasons that we’ll get into in a minute here, but basically this is saying talk about why we’re such a good fit for you. Why is it that you really want to come to this school specifically?
Before we continue into that, let’s take a moment and see if we can identify some of these. So here’s our first one. This is from UNC Chapel Hill. What do you hope to find over the rainbow? So if you had to classify this as one of these three types of essays, what would you pick?
Okay. This is kind of a trick question, which is why we asked it first. Obviously the voting was pretty split. Between creative and you, some people voted why us, I’m not entirely sure why, but I think you could go either way with this. I think this is kind of creative in the sense of you have to define over the rainbow to mean something other than over the rainbow quite literally, but really it is a you essay. This is an essay about you. It’s basically saying what are your hopes, what are your dreams, what are your goals? What do you hope your future holds for you and can you articulate that in a way that makes sense? Yes, there is a rainbow, yes, rainbows do have some element of mysticism or they’re associated with luck and that sort of thing, but it’s not really that crazy or it’s not that hard to figure out what a good answer to this question might be.
Okay. How about this Stanford prompt? All right. Yes, much clearer on this one. The vast majority of you saw that this was a you essay as well. Finally, again, I don’t think this will be too tough, but let’s go ahead and make sure that we’re all on the same page here. This one here, this UPenn prompt. A you, creative, or why us? Yeah, and the vast majority of you instantly understood that this was very much a why us essay.
Why is it that why us essays are so hard, or at least are challenging for some students? The reason is that they require real research. The vast majority of my students when they first start on these kinds of essays, they assume that they can just kind of Google the college, that they can just go to the website and look at a couple of bullet points on the About Us page or About This School page or something like that and kind of copy those into their answers, and the problem is that every other person applying to that school has thought of that, okay. Nobody hasn’t thought of that, everyone knows that that’s one thing you can do.
But the other problem is that quite often the things that are highlighted on that page, in addition to showing up in thousands and thousands of essays, and thus not helping you stand out, is that they’re often things that are true of many, many schools. You need to find features or factors about the college that you’re interested in that are not true of every single other school out there or every other school that you’re applying to, or every other school that’s similar to this school. You need to look for stuff that is not true in every single school. That means specific classes, specific programs, specific teachers, some interesting feature of the campus, some tradition that goes on at that school. There’s lots of stuff and colleges are, generally speaking, very proud of the things that really do meaningfully differentiate them from other schools, but you have to go find them. You cannot simply do this quickly.
It generally requires some thinking and some research because not only do you have to find those very specific factors, but you need to show how they fit you. You need to show how the fact that this school has this professor who teaches this really cool class is a good fit for me because you can see in my background these things that show my interest in it. If you’re saying that you want to do undergraduate research in biology and that’s a really important factor to you in terms of the school that you’re gonna attend, and they look back through your transcript or they look through your other application materials and there’s no evidence there of a deep interest in biology or any kind of interest in research or maybe even in science, then that whole I really want to do X starts to feel hollow. It starts to feel flat a little bit. It’s not as convincing as if you do have all those elements in your resume that back up whatever claims you’re making about why this school is excellent.
Okay, so we’ve identified the kind of essay we need to write, we’ve thought about what the essay prompt is really asking us, what the spirit of that prompt is, and now we’re kind of deep in our brainstorming, we’re maybe even outlining at this point and we’re trying to make sure that our essay is not like everyone else’s. We’re also trying to make sure that it’s good. In addition to being neat, we want it to be well written, we want it to be well organized, we want the reader to have as few problems, or as few obstacles as possible getting in the way of our meaning, what we’re actually trying to say.
As we said, probably the first thing and the most important thing is that you write a single story in your essay and that in general, particularly on the you essays, that you are the focus of that story. Even in the creative and the why us essays, we talked about how the why us essay kind of turns around and it has to be a you essay as well. But make sure that it’s not an essay about something else. If you had to identify the topic or the main idea of your essay, ideally it will be you almost all of the time.
Second thing is you need to tell a story. There’s a lot of places on your college application to inform admissions officers about all the different relevant facts about you. You’re gonna give them a transcript. They’re gonna see all your grades. You’re gonna send a gazillion different SAT or ACT, SAT subject tests, AP scores, and they’re gonna look through all of that and they’re gonna have letters of recommendation, they’re going to have just so much data that they can use to evaluate you, and so what you don’t need to do is cram your entire resume, cram your entire application into your essay. That is a huge mistake and generally speaking it ends up not being an essay. It ends up being a series of semi-connected paragraphs, but it’s not … it doesn’t have that cohesive feel that when you sit down and read it, you have read one thing that has a beginning, that has a middle, that has an end, that you learned something about the person or about the subject or about the topic.
If as you are outlining, you are noticing that you’re including a whole bunch of different stuff or that if the topics of your paragraphs don’t seem to flow very neatly to one another or you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, how can I mention this little story that I was trying to tell? How can I fit that into this larger narrative that I’m crafting here?” Almost always, you’re making a mistake and you’re trying to put too much stuff into one essay. That’s not to say that nothing should happen in your essay. If you are telling the story of how you became an excellent debater, it would not be weird at all to have more than one seam at debate meetings or at debate tournaments or at debate practice or what have you, but trying to shoe horn in that basketball practice where you learned the work ethic that you later applied into speech and debate club, now we’re pretty far off track and we’re not necessarily sticking to that one story anymore, mostly because we wanted to talk about how we played basketball also in our essay, which doesn’t have a place in the speech and debate essay necessarily.
That speaks to, in addition to focus, the value of organization. One of the biggest mistakes I see a lot of students make is they go straight from brainstorming to drafting and they don’t make an outline, or if they do make an outline, it’s pretty skimpy. It’s like one line for each paragraph. Maybe there’s some kind of indication of what the hook might be, probably the conclusion is totally ignored, and then the student goes home to draft it and all of a sudden it’s hard. They look at that one line that was gonna be the paragraph, but they’re not able to necessarily expand it into a full paragraph, or they don’t necessarily know what examples to include and how to support them, or there’s a struggle to build out a full and complete essay and so they end up either writing something that’s way too short or incomplete or they write something that’s highly repetitive, because they don’t have enough stuff to kind of put in.
That’s why to me the most important thing that you will produce in the course of generating an essay is not the finished product, it’s not even the first draft, it is the outline. That’s where you want to spend the bulk of your time is in messing with the outline and making sure that you have every single example, every single piece of analysis of each example that you’re gonna use in your body paragraph spelled out, that you have a sense for what your hook is going to be, that you have a conclusion and how you’re going to wrap up your essay, how you want your reader to leave the essay feeling or the last thought you want them to have before it’s finished.
Note that I have not said that you need to have a thesis, because in general you don’t. Narrative essays and essays of this type, they don’t fit as neatly into the sort of standard five paragraph structure that you spend a lot of time learning about in school, and thus if you have a bald thesis statement at the end of your first paragraph, it’s not to say that it’s horrible, but oftentimes it’s a little bit off-putting, it feels a little bit weird to read that in an essay, whereas leaving your thesis a little bit more implicit or just not even necessarily having a single thesis per se is totally okay, and in fact encouraged for a lot of these types of essays.
The point though is that you want to sit there and do the work on the outline, so that when it does come time to produce that initial draft, when it does come time to start writing, you don’t have to do nearly as much thinking. Your thinking is about how to render this idea in the best language possible, but you don’t have to come up with the idea itself. You’ve already got that. You know where it’s coming from, you know where it’s going to. You know how you’re gonna transition from each item to get to the next one and all you’re worried about is writing good sentences. That’s a fun thing … if you’re like me, that’s perhaps fun. Even if you don’t enjoy writing, it’s a lot less painful. It’s a lot less un-fun than not having that outline. If you put in the work, you will thank your past self when you do sit down to write that initial draft. You will feel like it’s not nearly as hard as writing essays sometimes is.
What else? What are some other differences between college essays and sort of a standard essay you’re used to at school? One thing is your paragraphs should probably be short. I know that when I was in school, a lot of my English teachers wanted me to write six to twelve sentence paragraphs, or eight to twelve sentence paragraphs. One time I got graded down for writing a five sentence paragraph. My teacher told me it was not a complete paragraph, it did not count, my homework was incomplete as a result. I was pretty unhappy about that. But the point is that is not a universal rule, that all paragraphs must have or must sort of.
… That all paragraphs must have those features- that is very much a literary and academic writing type of rule. And even then it’s more of a rule of thumb than an actual rule, as you will find out when you get to college and/or start encountering lots of other kinds of academic writing.
Point being that your paragraphs can shrink a little bit. Don’t feel like … if you’re sitting there and you feel like it’s a complete idea, you feel like you’ve made your point, feel like you’ve taken the reader where you want to take them. You can just move to the next one. You don’t have to pad it out with a couple of extra sentences to make sure you get to the right length of a paragraph.
Make sure you do have an actual beginning, and actual middle, and an actual end. They all count. Don’t neglect your transitions. They count as well. Another mistake students make is they write archetypical essays. They write essays that, while they may seem very important or very powerful for the student, simply because college admissions officers read so many other ones like them or that hit the same beats, those essays are undermined. That’s not the only reason.
Sometimes there’s other flaws with these types of essays, but that is a very, very good reason to avoid writing an essay that falls into one of these four categories. Okay. The first one is what we call the magic epiphany. This is the essay where a total change in your life happens in an instant. You suddenly realize something, like the apple falling on Newton’s head or something. The Apocryphal apple, I think. Here we see an actual example of one, where the student is claiming that he … because he was sort of forced to try a smoothie, that is representative of this … see change in, in his or her personality where he’s much more open to new experiences. Much more willing to take risks and figure out what works for him or her.
The idea of opening up and becoming more open to the world around you or being willing to take risks or being willing to challenge yourself and overcome fears. That’s a fine idea for an essay, that can totally work. But that doesn’t happen in a day. That certainly doesn’t happen as the result of a single vegetable smoothie. That’s ridiculous. And if you think about it, you’re trying to suggest that you made this big change in your life as a result of a very tiny event. Well, that doesn’t necessarily sound all that smart. To me anyway. That sounds perhaps like an overreaction, at least some of the time, or like the student perhaps got lucky, or something along those lines.
Anytime you are trying to make … you are trying to suggest that you underwent some massive change, some big evolution, some adjustment, make sure that it’s earned. Make sure that it’s a transition. That there’s stages to it. That it doesn’t just happen overnight or instantly. And then the other thing is you want to make sure there’s a match between the lesson that you learned and the actual thing that happened. Again, the idea that you’ve overcome prejudice by being willing to drink a vegetable smoothie, which you maybe thought didn’t taste that good at the [inaudible 00:23:20] or before drinking it. That’s a mismatch. We’re taking a very tiny thing and attributing to it a very big and important thing and that’s going to feel weird to your reader. That’s going to be, not necessarily, very believable.
Probably the second most common kind of essay. I don’t know, but this is an extremely common kind of essay as well, where a student wants to write about their volunteer work, their community service, their mission trip. And in doing so, they write about people that are less fortunate. That are deprived in some manner, that don’t have money, that are perhaps struggling with other things as well. Oftentimes the students are very well meaning. They are trying to say that they had certain features of their privilege removed or they had their eyes opened to something that they had not realized about the world. But in so doing they often mess up, in terms of the language that they use. They write in such a way that it is either insulting to the people that they helped or that it reveals them to be almost comically ignorant before they had this experience. Either way, it’s not a good look for you, the student.
There are a lot of students where I read their essays and it sounds like they had literally never heard of poor people before they were 16 years old. You can spend all the time in the world saying, but now that I do know, here’s all the good things that I do. It’s still kind of weird having to read that and think, well, man, what were you doing up until you were 16? How did you miss that fact about the world? How were you quite that insulated from the existence of people not exactly like you? And we certainly recommend that if you do try to write about a topic like this or in this area, that you get lots of input. But especially from people that don’t sit there and read college essays all day.
It’s very easy for tutors that read a lot of college essays or teachers that read a lot of college essays to get used to the fact that a lot of essays have this flaw and not recoiled to the degree that they should. Whereas if you get someone who’s not used to reading a college essay and they read your description of a homeless person or someone who is struggling with mental illness, let’s say, and they are like, whoa. That can often be a really good sign that something is wrong with the language here. Something is wrong with what I’ve written. And honestly, because so many people choose to write about this, even if you do write a good version of it, it’s still pretty hard to stand out. Even if you avoid all the traps that you can fall into, in terms of writing about the less fortunate. It’s still hard to shine because, again, that just the sheer number of people that are going to be writing something similar to you.
Third one, and this is the same exact problem, which is that a gazillion people are going to write this essay. Whether it’s moving to America, whether it’s learning English, whether it’s fitting into your new high school when you don’t know the language or the food smells funny to you or whatever. It’s not that it’s a bad topic for a college essay, in the sense that it’s not big enough. It really is. This is a major life changing event. It is something that you probably … that was probably a real challenge that you’ve overcome if you’ve been into this category of students, but nonetheless, just so many people do it. And the way in which so many people write about it is so similar, that again, it’s very, very difficult to stand out.
Quite often, when I read one of these essays, I can look up after the first paragraph and I can tell the student without reading it, what’s gonna be in second paragraph. What’s gonna be in the third. what’s going to be in the fourth. I know the beats of this essay because I’ve read it so many times. Granted if I look down and the third and fourth paragraph actually surprised me and they are not what I expected, that can be good. But that’s almost always because the person who wrote it got really into the details. They were able to talk about their specific and unique and interesting move to America in a way that didn’t just hit on the same story beats that everyone else does. In general, the way to do that is to zoom in further. Go more micro. Don’t necessarily talk about the whole move to America. Talk very specifically about fitting into your high school or your little friend group within the high school or learning to play basketball when your whole life you grew up playing soccer or something along those lines where again, you’re able to add a lot more specific detail that will help differentiated from what everyone else is potentially writing.
That having been said, it should be a fallback topic. It should not be your first topic. Again, this goes back to the importance of brainstorming. One of the reasons that students fall into these types of essays, the move to America or something, is because they don’t want to spend the time to think of something else. They think college essay, they thing, oh yeah, I’ll just write about moving to America. Done. Check mark next to that on my to do list. And they don’t end up with as good of an essay as they could have produced.
The last one. Basically … my parents are defense attorneys and one of the things that, if you grow up with defense attorney parents, they tell you is, admit nothing no matter what, no matter how guilty you look, no matter how much evidence there is never ever say … confess, basically. Say, “I want a lawyer.”, or something along those lines. I think the same kind of principle applies to college essays, which is don’t ever confess to anything in there. There is nothing, other than responding to the prompts, there is no requirements for what is included in your essay beyond word counts. Why would you ever include a bunch of stuff that makes you look bad, even if you think it’s making you look better in contrast or making the grown up you look a lot better.
A lot of times, again … go back to the student who’s writing about people who are less fortunate, and a lot of times the student is essentially saying, “Look, I am a much better person. I am much more empathetic. I am much more aware now than I was before the events depicted in this essay.”. But again, the reaction to that level, at least some readers is, well, yeah, but how did you spend that long as the person who was ignorant and totally unaware of this stuff? How did you manage to get to age 16 that way? And in the same way you’re talking about how you used to cheat all the time on your exams in school, but then you got caught and now you don’t do that anymore. You’re a much better student as a result. Again, you might be thinking that you’re talking about how great of a student you are today, and that’s the story. And the admissions officer sitting there reading this and thinking, well, there were hundreds of other ninth graders at your school that didn’t cheat constantly and you’re the one who did. Why does that make you better somehow? The fact that you don’t do it anymore?
In general, again, we strongly recommend avoiding this. If you do want to write about something like this, one, make sure that the mistake, the problem, the issue, is pretty far in the past, and focus as much as you can on the map. What you learned, how you grew, and what you are like today, and don’t dwell on the bad stuff. More of the stuff that you’ve since overcome or whatever. That being said, make sure that the thing that you were overcoming is not that bad, or the thing that you’ve improved from is not that bad. You don’t ever want to say that you used to shoplift or used to cheat at school or used to be racist or something along those lines. Those are not the kinds of confessions that it’s wise to make in this spot.
Beyond that, we generally don’t recommend engaging too, too much with things that could be controversial, where you don’t know how your reader will react to your thoughts. Race, politics, religion, particularly given the political situation in this country. There are going to be a lot of things that you might have very strong feelings about, that you might think are really, really important. And while I wish that I could promise you that every single college admissions officer will be perfectly impartial and objective and simply look at the quality of what you’ve written it not the underlying beliefs, I cannot promise that, unfortunately. Now, of course, if you’re applying to a religious school or if you’re applying to a private school with a very clear kind of political vent, you could potentially take that into account when writing your essays. There’s also no harm and steering clear. There’s almost no downside.
Likewise, if you have had any mental health issues or emotional health issues in your past, do not mention them in your college essays under any circumstances. I wish I could say differently. I wish that there were not certain stigmas associated with that still, but I cannot advise it. To me it is too much of a risk. But again, you could write about other stuff.
Okay. What else should we be doing? We talked a lot about some don’ts. A whole bunch of essay types to avoid. One thing we did talk about with creative essays in particular, but just more generally, is, you do want to differentiate yourself. You do want to stand out. You do want to not just write the same essay that everyone else wrote, but there’s a limit. You want to be outside the box a little bit, but you don’t want to be so far outside the box that no one knows where you are or what’s going on here. And this is, I think, where criticism comes in. Where getting feedback … and not just at the end.
It’s really hard to write a draft and revise and edit it and draft some more, and then go hand your essay to someone. By the time you’ve put that much work into it, by the time you’ve done that much stuff, if they look at you and are like, “Listen, I know you did a lot of work on this, but I really think you should just throw this essay out and start over, because I don’t think this is a good topic for you.”, or, “I think this bad.”. That’s going to be really hard to take at that point, once you’ve done all that work. Whereas if it’s just … you’ve got a list of four or five different ideas or you’re starting to build out your draft, you’d be much more willing to take that criticism. Be open to that sort of criticism. Make sure that you’re getting some criticism a little bit earlier in the process. Ideally during the brainstorming and/or outlining phase, so that you are open to the full spectrum of criticism.
Then make sure that, ultimately, it’s not only you that can understand your essay. Yes, you can use some cool literary devices and techniques to make your essay better, but you also gotta remember that people are going to be reading these pretty quickly, and you want to make sure that they can take away from them what you want them to take away. That’s the most important thing. If you dress your essay up a little bit too much or are you get a little bit too creative, that can sometimes detract from the actual message that you’re trying to get convey.
Here we see an example of exactly that. I believe that verse in the middle there is from Emily Dickinson. Why it is stuck in the middle of these two, I don’t know, paragraphs? I guess you could call it paragraphs. Again, it’s just … you read this and you have no idea what’s really going on. It’s hard to tell what’s literal and figurative. It’s hard to tell … and the whole thing is just like crazy pretentious. I would strongly advise avoiding this sort of thing. If you can’t really explain what’s going on or what you’re trying to achieve or what you’re trying to do here, that’s a really good sign that you have failed, and that you should do a little bit of revision or adjust.
Okay. What about adding some color? What about adding some spice to it and really making our essay stand out? What characterizes the good writing that we like to see in our college essay? Probably the most common writing advice that you will get out there is show, don’t tell. What does that mean? Well, what it means is that you want to be able to put your reader in your shoes. You want them to have them experience what you experienced. Not simply imagine what it might have been like. If you look at these two examples here, I really liked the word invigorated in the telling example. It’s a good word. It’s not a bad word and it’s not poorly written. The telling example is not bad. It does a good job of telling the reader how the student feels. But the showing example gives you the sense for what it actually feels like. Reveling in that first shock of cold, clean water. That is what it is to be invigorated. To be energized despite the fact that the water is cold. In fact, it is the fact that the water is cold that does energize the person or wakes them up. The showing example really gets at that. You almost get that jolt of, ooh, this is cold water. I’m wake now. That the reader knows.
When you get that … Well, when they tell you the moment that says, now his day. And we know that moment. Anybody who’s ever stayed up to watch, or gotten up really early to watch the sunrise. There’s this kind of weird hazy light for a while, and then at some point there’s this incontestable change in the quality of the light as the sun gets a tiny bit higher or the shadow drops or the angle changes and boom, all of a sudden it feels like day, even though two minutes before it was still dawn or it was night, or it was something else. And this writing conveys that really, really well. It gets at that moment. It puts the reader in that moment and that’s what makes it strong.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with the talent. It’s fine, but it’s not amazing. It doesn’t stand out. It doesn’t make you feel, again, like you’re in that moment in the way that the best writing can. That’s what you should be aiming for. That’s your goal, is to put your reader and have them kind of go through your experience as you go through the essay.
Of course you want to use sensory descriptions. Sight, sound, taste, smell, and feel. That’s how you situate someone somewhere specific. You don’t necessarily … One thing that students sometimes do that’s not … that can be a mistake, is they try to comprehend it. They think that for every single situation I need to describe what it looked like and what it sounded like and what it tastes like and what it smelled like and how it felt, and therefore if I do all that, it will be a good description. That is not true. In some situations, different senses take prominence.
What’s something … if you’re eating, to take the most obvious example. Sight tends to take a little bit of a backseat. Maybe not entirely. And sound, probably, as well. Although, again, they matter. But ultimately taste, smell, feel, the texture of the food in your mouth or on your plate or whatever. Those are what define eating experiences. Being able to convey that to your reader, focusing on those senses in particular is going to be better than sitting there and describing exactly what it looks like each and every time.
It’s not so much, do I have enough details or do I have some overwhelming massive details that’s going to … that I’m going to hit the reader with. It’s more, have I selected the perfect details to illustrate exactly what I’m trying to illustrate here? Of course, figurative language is helpful, right? Metaphors, similes, that sort of thing can be excellent because they allow you to describe things in slightly more abstract ways, without necessarily having to characterize directly what it is to be sweet or to be sugary or something like that. Or you can compare it to something else. You can talk about an explosion in your mouth or something along those lines. To use a cliché, that is none the less figurative language. Then of course we went to avoid repetition. They’ve got a lot of essays to read. You don’t want to make them read the same thing over and over. When you think of the admissions officers, have a little mercy on them, if you would.
Okay. We’ve talked about this a little bit in terms of getting some feedback, and getting some feedback at multiple stages of the process, not just at the end. But that does not mean that you should not edit and revise after you’ve drafted. You very much should, and in fact, one mistake that I often see students make is they mistake revision for proofreading. They assume that, okay, I have typed this thing, I put the last period in the last paragraph. Now I just need to check the spelling, check the grammar, make sure all the comments are in the right places and we’re good to go. And that is simply not the case. And in fact, I would recommend …
And that’s simply not the case, and, in fact, I would recommend putting off the proofreading until you really are done with the revision, right? Sit there and mess with the ideas, mess with the language, adjust the way you phrase your conclusion, adjust the examples that you include, or how much time you spend on each of them. You need to edit that stuff. You need to revise that stuff. You need to make sure what you are saying is well-said and is good, is what you actually want to say, and only after you’ve done that, only after you are really happy with the story you are telling, with the way it makes the reader feel about you, then go back and yes, check the spelling, check the grammar, that sort of thing.
Make sure that it is perfect. There are few things more embarrassing than having a mistake in a college essay because you’ve had so much time to check it. There’s simply no excuse for having something like a spelling mistake or a grammar error in your college essay, again, because you have all the time in the world to get all kinds of people that know those rules backwards and forwards cold to look through your essay and make sure you don’t have any mistakes like that, but that having been said, again, that’s not the important part. The important part of revision is the ideas and the content. Proofreading is putting on the makeup, the lipstick at the end or something like that.
This can be taught. We’ve talked a couple of different times about getting feedback and making sure that you’re open to constructive criticism and that you’re open to it at the right stages in your essay-writing process, because again it can be easy to close yourself off from criticism in a way that is unhealthy. At the same time, please don’t assume that every smart person or every person that you trust who reads the essay is going to think the exact same things about it, and I know that’s hard, because your English teacher in school tells you one thing and your C2 teacher tells you a different thing, and maybe those two things don’t even agree, but that doesn’t mean that either person is wrong. Quite often there are multiple good directions in which to take an essay, but you can’t take it in both directions simultaneously.
You could turn it into your teacher’s version and that could be good or you can turn it into your C2 teacher’s version and that could be good. Maybe one would be a little bit better, maybe they would both be equivalently good, but what you cannot do is some weird Frankenstein hybrid of the two. A lot of times if you attempt to take the average of the feedback that you get insofar as that’s even a coherent idea, you will end up making your essay worse or you will end up splitting with [inaudible 00:42:42] in a way that’s unattractive. You will end up not addressing either person’s concerns completely and thus potentially introducing more concerns, potentially losing focus in your essay, potentially introducing too many stories; potentially making some of the mistakes that we’ve already talked about today in this webinar or even adding them in.
You want to have a plan. Once you get comments from one person, you need to sit down and evaluate those comments. You need to think about that feedback and decide whether you agree with it, whether it’s right, whether it makes sense, and then decide what you’re going to do about it as a result. Those are your decisions to make. That’s not to say that they’re easy decisions. A lot of times it’s hard as a student to reject the advice of someone who one, has your best interests at heart and two, is potentially a better writer than you or at least is more experienced and has things to teach you, but again it’s ultimately your essay.
Ultimately the person that has to be happy with it is you, and if you turn in something that you’ve adjusted in response to criticism from someone else that you don’t totally agree with, you’re going to have a really sick feeling in your stomach as you’re handing that essay in; as you’re finishing your applications, because in your heart of hearts you know you want to change it back to the version you had before. You want to go in a different direction or you don’t totally believe that critique.
Now, you can go too far with this. Again, we talked about getting too attached to your essay and how that can be problematic, but at the same time you do need to ultimately produce something unitary; something that is cohesive, something that is singular, and the too many cooks problem can be a problem. You can get contradictory advice that leaves you stuck, and so in general I think it’s important how to plan. I think it’s important to pick a few people that you’re going to have [inaudible 00:44:34] and give you feedback, but it shouldn’t just be like you hand it to everyone you see and ask them what they think, because you won’t be able to act on all of the different bits of advice or suggestions or recommended changes that you will get as a result.
That is it for this evening. Hopefully you’ve gotten a good sense for what makes for good essays and how to produce them; what are some traps that you could fall into and how you can avoid them. Of course, you can always come into C2. We have a ton, a ton of experience helping students with college essays. As I was saying in the introduction earlier, we have a college essay review service for example, which means that if you come to C2 and you work on your essay with a teacher at C2, once you’ve done that for a little while once the two of you have an essay that you’re happy with, you could send it off too someone like me or someone like Sam, but we have a whole team of extremely experienced teachers who will review your essay and write up a document, send that back to you and your teacher for the two of you to continue working on it together.
It’s that level service. It’s that level of commitment to our students that C2 displays that I think really does differentiate us and help make C2 a great place to help you if you do need to go through this process, because it’s very much going to be that. If you come into C2 to work on your college essays, it is not going to be a thing where they say, “Okay, write a draft, come back and we’ll help you edit.” We’re going to sit there and we’re going to help you all the way through that process from prop selection and evaluation through brainstorming and outlining, through drafting, and then of course through extensive revision even including things like that essay service I was mentioning.
If you are interested in C2, if you’d like us to reach out to you, please don’t hesitate. Submit your name, your phone number and a zip code into the Q and A box. Just write it as a question. It’s not actually going to be a question. I’ll go through afterwards and find all the personal information that’s been submitted there and I will make sure whatever center is closest to you reaches out to get in touch or to set something up. I’d also encourage you, once again, to download that coupon, because it’s something that we value at over $120 and the reason for that is not because it entitles you to come and take the test. There’s a million places where you can go in and take a test and have that test scored, including your public library for example.
What C2 offers, what this difference is, where the value comes in is not the taking of the test. It’s the analysis of the results. You will be entitled to sit down with one of our center directors and our center directors are absolute veterans. They are people that have ushered hundreds if not thousands of students through their junior high school careers all the way up till they finish the college application process and get into an awesome school, and so they will sit down with you and they will go over the results of whatever exam you choose to take whether that’s SAT or an SAT subject test, AB [inaudible 00:47:33] AP exam and they’ll help you break it down; they’ll help you understand the breakdown and they’ll help you understand the implications of that breakdown.
What does that mean for this summer? What does that mean for sophomore year? What about the classes that I’m taking in my signup for the right ones? Should I try to accelerate in math? When should I be planning to take my SAT subject testing? What subjects? Suppose I want to major in this? They can answer all those questions. They can talk you through all that stuff and they can help you set out a plan whether that’s for four years, if you’re a ninth grader or for the rest of the summer and into the fall if you’re a 12th grader that’s about to undergo the college application process, so strongly, strongly encourage you to download that coupon and come on into C2.
Again, if you’d like C2 to reach out to you, put your name, your phone number, and your zip code in as a question. Just submit it there and I will make sure that the center that is closest to you gets in touch as soon as possible, so with that I’m going to go ahead and look for a couple of questions that you folks submitted during the presentation that are particularly good or representative that aren’t just, “Hey, tell me about my specific college application process,” but that are more about, “Hey, this is a question that will apply to lots and lots of people.”
A number of people are asking, “Can I watch this presentation again? How does this work?” You can always watch our presentations again. All you have to do is go back to the registration bank or just follow the link and you’ll be able to rewatch them on demand. You won’t be able to do that for tonight probably. It takes a little while for them to fully upload, and stuff like that, but as of tomorrow there should be no issue with that whatsoever.
I see some people asking about can they send their essays in to be revised. No, that’s not what I want by the C2 essay revision service. This is a service that we offer to existing C2 students, so if you sign up with C2, if you then work with a C2 teacher for some number of hours, at that point you may submit your essay to our review team, but it’s not something that’s open to the public more generally.
Again, if you’d like to see this presentation again you are welcome to just visit the registration page and watch it at your leisure. Otherwise, when does sharing stuff in a college essay become too personal? Is there a too personal? Are sob stories effective?
Yeah, that’s a tough one, because sometimes it’s appropriate to be fairly personal. People quite often right personal essays or first person essays that reveal some pretty private stuff about them or things that other people would prefer to keep private. I can’t articulate a very precise line. I think it’s going to differ from student to student to some extent. It probably will differ honestly a little bit from reader to reader. I think that in general as long as what you are sharing is not offensive or is not inappropriate, it’s okay. It’s not going to get anyone mad at you. I certainly don’t think you want to talk about your romantic life, for example, in a college essay. I think that would be a mistake almost always regardless of how personal or impersonal you made it.
In terms of sob stories specifically, again, you have to think about the lesson. What is the point? Why am I telling this story, and is this the best vehicle for making that point or do I have a really good reason for telling this story in this way? Am I being hyperbolic? Am I exaggerating? Am I going to cause people to roll their eyes instead of react in the way that we want them too? What makes it a sob story is it’s over the top, how sad it is or how ridiculous it sounds, so it’s okay to tell a sad story but you probably don’t necessarily want to tell a sob story that would be characterized in that way.
Okay. Yeah. Again, folks, if you want to re-watch the presentation you are welcome to do that at any point at the registration page as soon as the thing is uploaded. Another question here is how many props can we choose from? That’s going to differ dramatically from school to school. On a common application for example I believe there are six props from which to choose or seven if you count topic of your choice as one of the props. The UCs, I believe there are several props and you have to choose four of them. For other schools there may just be one and you have to answer it. For many schools that you apply to through the common application there is just a required supplement. Why us essays are often just required. You just have to write them for each school to which you apply. It will really vary from school to school. You want to investigate that individually.
Stories about language, learning, and culture shock following your moving to America? Yeah, generally speaking. If you were saying if you moved to a different country from America when you were a kid and you wanted to write the moving to France essay or the moving to somewhere else essay, I actually think that can be cool because the details are different and you would be able to maybe do a little bit of a send up of the stereotype or a tiny bit of hint of mockery of the standard version of that essay, but yes, in general language, learning, and culture shock are part and parcel of moving to America. It’s what makes moving to America difficult for lots of students. Yeah, I would consider that under the same umbrella.
How important is the essay to the admissions process? This is probably our last question here, folks, and then we’ll wrap it up, but it’s a good question. It’s not the most important thing. Your grades, your scores are generally speaking both going to be bigger factors than the essay. That having been said, when you think about it from the perspective of a senior that has to start the process, there’s not a whole lot of stuff that you have left to do. If you think about your grades, for example, you’ve already gotten six semesters worth of grades in high school and then you’ve got maybe one more semester’s worth of grades that are going to count towards your application.
You’ve already done the vast majority of your extracurricular activities. Yes, you need to showcase them. You might need to type up you resume or comment on them in the application itself, but fundamentally the work has been put in and you can’t go back and sign up for an extra club as a sophomore or something like that, but you can do anything you want with your essays. You can spend as much time or as little time; you can get as creative or as not creative as you want with them, and so they can often be a differentiating factor. When you have students that are broadly similar, the ones who take the time and produce the excellent essays, the really good essays, they often stand out. You often find them able to get into the schools at the top end of their range or even the lower of their dream schools, as opposed to students that mail in the essays and they get into places that they were obviously going to get into, but they don’t get in anywhere better than that. They’re never surprising anyone by their results or something like that.
As an incoming senior am I behind as I haven’t started my college app essays? Yeah, maybe a little bit. Certainly compared to some other people. Not like, “Oh my gosh,” you don’t have any chance of going to college or anything like that; no, definitely not, and particularly if you’re not planning on applying with any kind of early action or early decision but if you’re planning on applying somewhere in January or even in March depending on the school and the dates, then no, you’ve got plenty of time, but remember that the amount of time you have is going to compress dramatically sometime in the next several weeks whenever you start school if you haven’t already. All of a sudden eight, ten, twelve hours of your day is just gone. It’s just spoken for.
You’re in class, you’re doing homework, you’ve got extracurriculars, you’ve got a social life, you’ve got so much stuff going on and college applications are a major, major undertaking that take a ton of time, and so getting as much of that done in the summer when you don’t have all those other demands on your time is really, really valuable. No, technically I don’t think you’re really behind and certainly not dramatically behind even if you are, but yes, I would certainly recommend getting started as soon as you possibly can, because yes, I think that the vast majority of students underestimate how long the entire application process takes and I think the vast majority of students underestimate just how busy they’re going to be during their first semester of senior year even when you don’t count college applications.
It’s generally your busiest semester in all of high school academically. It’s the time you’re taking the very hardest classes. It is the time that you know the most people and you are most comfortable at school, but that might mean that you’re being asked to do lots of stuff. It is the time that you’re the most involved in your extracurricular activities or if you’ve achieved leadership positions you are likely serving in those positions as a senior, and so again, the demands on your time are quite dramatic, and so if you can ease them at all by working over the summer that’s an excellent thing for you to do.
With that, I will leave you to it. Good luck of course. We will continue our webinars I believe next week with a return to our roots with discussion of a couple of very common standardized exams in the form of the SAT V ACT, and in September and into October we will continue with more college, college application, college essay type webinars, so please come back with those. Otherwise, one more time, if you do want us to reach out to you put your name, phone number and zip code into a question. Otherwise, have wonderful evenings, folks. Thank you so much for coming and good night.