Bad Advice on College Essays

Jay Mathews has written some great articles on college admissions over the years for The Washington Post. Not this time.

Lots of folks love to dish out advice on college essays, particularly the Personal Statement. Yet more often than not, the advice runs counter to everything we know to be true about the highly selective college admissions process. Case in point? Jay Mathews, a longtime columnist for The Washington Post, recently penned a piece entitled “College application essay tip: Make fun of yourself. I’m serious.” And while we have no issue with students making fun of themselves in their college admissions essays as Mathews suggests in the title of his piece, his subsequent suggestions would not serve the interest of applicants. Allow us to explain.

Mathews writes in his column, “What are you bad at? What do your friends tease you about? What do you do that makes them laugh? One successful applicant I know spent an entire essay discussing her ability to identify any tune by just the first three or four notes. She told her first-choice college, ‘The happiest place in the world for me is inside my car singing (badly) to pop music.’…You can be justifiably proud of your senior essay on how to reform U.S. trade policy with Asia. But don’t you think college admissions officers would be more likely to enjoy, and remember, your account of trying to change the school mascot from the Crusaders to the Cockroaches?”

Oh how we beg to differ. Now, don’t get us wrong. We’re all for applicants being likable. We’re all for applicants poking fun at themselves. We’re all for applicants being modest in their college essays. Heck, we’ve written time and again on the pages of this college admissions blog that one of the biggest mistakes students make in their essays is that they toot their own horns. But that doesn’t mean students should write about trivial subjects like listening to pop music while on car rides or seeking to change the name of their school mascot. One’s task in a Personal Statement should be to showcase how one hopes to change the world for the better in one super specific, small way that is also showcased through a student’s singular hook in their activities. Elite college, after all, seek to admit a well-rounded class of singularly talented students — the award-winning science researcher, the talented oboist, the acclaimed poet, etc. They do not seek to admit the student who likes to listen to pop music. And writing about as much in the Personal Statement is a wasted opportunity.

 
 

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