Admissions

Getting Essay Help: Peers and Fears

Some of you rising high school seniors may already be working on your Common Application essay, or even certain colleges’ supplemental essays, if their applications are currently available. Even though it’s still high summer, it’s never too early to start conjuring your writing creativity.

If you are blessed with a talent for writing, you may be embracing the challenge of putting forth a personal statement that will not only make you stand out from the throng of others with whom you will be competing but will also proclaim “Hey, I will be a BIG plus for your student body!”


But what if you don’t consider yourself a good writer? What if the very thought of coming up with an original approach to these prompts propels a chill through your bones? What should you do? To whom should you turn?

This brings us to the issue of what I call “peer advising.” Peer advising is turning to your former classmates, friends, or other acquaintances (your peers) who have already gone through the college application process and have negotiated the hurdles associated with their various application essays.

Is this a good idea? What do others (including yours truly here) have to say about this?

 

Let’s get an opinion from College Confidential’s venerable “Dean,” Sally Rubenstone, who writes her legendary Ask the Dean column. Sally says:

Question: Is it safe now to share my college admission essay publicly (on facebook or share with friends) since the admission is over or is there still any concern about plagiarism that will affect me? The reason I want to share is to give my underclassmen friends inspiration and an idea of what an accepted essay looks like but i want to know if there are any precautions.

If you show your essay to others, it’s certainly possible that it could be copied and recycled. Of course, if it’s submitted to a college next year (or any time down the road) and then the plagiarist is caught,  you won’t be at fault. The date of the submission will clearly be AFTER you applied to college yourself, and there’s nothing unscrupulous about letting future college candidates see what you’ve written. So if you’re worried about someone else using your essay, that’s a legitimate concern, but ultimately it shouldn’t reflect badly on YOU.

However, if your primary reason for sharing your essay is to help others, it’s possible that this “help” can do more harm than good. Most successful applicants have no way of knowing if their essay was a pro or a con in their final admission verdicts.  In my many years at Smith College, we regularly admitted applicants in spite of a so-so (or even pretty awful) essay, and there were times when we LOVED the essay but still rejected the candidate for a variety of other reasons.

So, unless an admission officer specifically told you that your essay was great (which sometimes does happen), you may not actually be assisting your friends by saying, “Read this because it worked.” The most you may be saying is, “Even if this essay was lousy, apparently it wasn’t bad enough to keep me out.”

In general, I don’t think it’s wise to put a college essay on Facebook for all (or most) of the world to see. Over the eons since Al Gore invented the Internet (he did, didn’t he? ;-) )  I’ve been appalled by how shamelessly others have stolen my writing from the Web and re-published my words as their own. Although this has never gotten me into legal or ethical trouble, it certainly doesn’t do any good to my blood pressure!  On the other hand, if you want to send your essay to those you know and trust, that’s a different story. But if anyone starts interrogating you about which colleges received this essay, that’s when it’s time to raise your antennae and start making speeches about the perils of bad karma!

So, Sally raises some serious cautions about sharing essays. Her advice applies to both the former writer (the veteran college applicant/essayist) and the current writer who is seeking help.

Perhaps a better approach would be to use the multiple resources of College Confidential. If you go to CC’s discussion forum, you can search for highly accomplished writers who will likely be willing to give you both advice and a sentient review of your essays draft(s).

You can also read the many essay advice articles that I’ve written both for CC and here on Admit This! Just search for the keyword “essay.”

Here’s a sample excerpt from one of my Admit This! posts:

 

Essays: “You Had Me from Your Lede!”

Attention-grabbing opening sentences … Put your best efforts there!

You might be unfamiliar with the term “lede.” Let me define that for you.

“Lede” — “The introductory section of a news story that is intended to entice the reader to read the full story.”

Now let’s convert that to apply to college application essays: “The introductory sentence of an essay that is intended to entice the reader to read the full statement.”

You may have noticed that all my blog posts here have titles. They function as my lede. I try to make my titles interesting so that by just seeing them, you might be interested in reading what else I have written in my post. The same applies to application essays. A strong lede can draw your admission committee readers into your essay. Let me give you a real-life example from one of my client’s experiences.

Tom [not his real name] was applying to the University of Pennsylvania. He was searching for an idea in response to Penn’s famous (or infamous) “Page 217” essay question: “You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217.” In discussing what he wanted to write about, I thought that he had hit upon a perfect topic. Tom told me that he was on a Little League team for four years and, in all that time, he never got into one. single. game. Not for one inning. Zero at bats. Nothing. Nada. Over all those years.

As for great essay topics, this was a Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner! idea. So, I coached Tom about the value of lead sentences. Here, from my notes, are some of the variations we explored for that all-important first sentence:

– “Ferguson! Centerfield!”  Words of Coach Edminston I never heard.

– What becomes of kids who never get to play?

– What comes from a little-league career of  riding the oak?

– I did some of my best thinking in the dugout.

– Mooky Zittzelsperger didn’t know what contempt for the prosaic meant.

– I rode the oak into the cosmos.

– My contempt for the prosaic was born in a dugout.

– Little League was a metaphor for life; Coach Edminston was Fate.

– Sitting out every little league game can help you develop a passion for the extraordinary.

– Dugouts are like wombs; a life can be formed in one.

– This would have been a tribute to Coach Edminston if he hadn’t been such a jerk.

– This should be a tribute to Coach Edminston, but he was such a jerk.

– The Day Coach Edminston Saved America.

– If Einstein had played for Coach Edminston, the Nazis would have won the war.

– Being an INFJ and playing little league isn’t easy.

– I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator the other day.  I wonder what Coach Edminston’s type is?

– INFJ isn’t short for I need funny jokes.

A more complex lede:

– Dear Coach Edminston:

This note is years overdue. Thanks for never letting me play in any games.

Sincerely,

Tom

I ought to write him tonight; I owe that guy a lot.

***

After much discussion and editing, this is what Tom submitted for his Page 217: …

***

As far as help beyond your peers (which, as you may have noticed, can be perilous) and College Confidential, I would recommend what I consider to be the best book ever written on the subject of college application essays: On Writing the College Application Essay, 25th Anniversary Edition: The Key to Acceptance at the College of Your ChoiceOn Writing the College Application Essay, 25th Anniversary Edition: The Key to Acceptance at the College of Your Choice.

 

In my review of the original edition of Harry Bauld’s little masterpiece, I said:

This little college book is worth its weight in acceptance letters. It’s as fresh and pertinent today as it was back in 1987 when it first came out. Not many college books go through as many printings as this one has, which is some indication of its legendary status among high schoolers. The secret to Bauld’s success is that he takes some of his own writing medicine with the text of On Writing. There is humor, pathos, instruction, brevity, revelation, and intelligence here. It can be a one-night read, but you’ll want to savor it over and over as you build those critical writing samples that will populate your college applications.

Bauld’s humor shines through in his mini-play about two young admission staffers struggling with a mountain of mediocre applications and the inevitable sub-par essays. With each sarcastic comment, we get precious insights into how college gatekeepers think (Bauld is a former Ivy League admissions officer). Thus, through poking fun at these fictional essays, Bauld warns us of the perilous pitfalls. His treatise on topics to avoid will be shocking to many who have already planned their essay topics. Are you guilty of writing about “The Trip,” My Favorite Things,” or “Tales of My Success”? There are other bad topics too. You can also learn why this lead: “I do some of my best thinking in the bathroom” got its author into a top college. There are examples galore with critical commentaries by some of Bauld’s admission officer buddies. It’s a gold mine for essay writers and a true classic in the genre.

***

Summarizing, then:

Taking advice from peers about application essays can be risky. By extension, taking advice from your Internet acquaintances can be a roll of the dice, too.

To stay in safer waters, trust well-known, longtime trusted sources, such as — naturally — College Confidential’s vast reservoir of resources and publications that have proven their value over the years, such as Harry’s enduring book.

If you’re fearful about writing your application statements, try not to be. I know; that’s easy for me to say, but if you look long enough and hard enough inside that psyche of yours, you’ll find the source of your Inner Writer. S/he’s been waiting for you to unleash his/her creativity. Think about that for a while!

**********

Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.