Ignoring English Teachers in College Essays

English Teachers and College Essays, Admissions Essays and English Teachers, Colloquial Tone in College Essays

Don’t listen to the advice of your high school English teacher when it comes to your college essays.

Many students (and their parents) come to us seeking our help with their college essays and a decent portion of them preface their seeking of help with a line like this: “Jason’s English teacher already reviewed his essays and she thinks they’re just terrific.” And of course, if you’re a regular reader of our college admissions blog, you’ll likely conjecture that this elicits an eye roll from us. We also wonder: So, if you think this, why again are you coming to us then? Jason’s English teacher thinks his college essays are good so they must be! Right. What does a high school English teacher know about college admissions? What does the average high school English teacher even know about great writing? Sorry to come down on high school English teachers but we’ve seen way too many cases in which the essays these English teachers dubbed terrific are, in fact, quite terrible.

In our experience, high school English teachers encourage students to build their college essays around a thesis statement. Around a thesis statement? Seriously? Oy vey. That’s the last thing that you should be doing in a college essay. College essays are supposed to be entertaining to read. They’re supposed to be powerful statements of who a student is and what he or she is all about. Many high school English teachers also have a habit of encouraging students to pepper in words like “however” and “nevertheless” throughout their essays. Don’t do that! Using words like “however,” “nonetheless,” and “thus” is the mark of a bad writer.

One Commenter on one of our blogs some weeks ago pointed out that some of the sentences on our blogs aren’t in fact sentences. He was right! For instance, in the first paragraph of this blog, we wrote, “Jason’s English teacher thinks his essays are good so they must be! Right.” Right, by itself, does not a sentence make. And yet when you write in a colloquial way like this, your writing can be quite effective. That’s why we did that. It’s the same reason we started the sentence on the line above with the word “and.” High school English teachers may teach students never to start sentences with “and” or “but” and yet doing so can be quite powerful. They’re wrong about that, too!

We just wanted to give you a bit of a warning when it comes to high school English teachers reviewing college essays. Many high school English teachers are great at teaching literature and critical analysis. And many are quite bad at editing college essays. They should stick to their expertise.


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  • sara schroeder says:

    I agree with your premise that most English teachers don’t understand college admissions and don’t know what makes a good college essay. However, you also say that college essays should not be built around a thesis. I disagree. Any good essay, college or other, should have a recognizable thesis.

    Maybe this is a matter of semantics. A thesis can be defined as an idea, belief, premise, argument, theory, assertion, opinion, etc. Certainly any good college essay I have ever seen has one of these at its core. That is not to say it has to have a thesis statement, which English teachers like to see. But a college essay must have a central theme–i.e., thesis–or the message of the essay will not be clear.

    Do you agree?

  • Suffering in Silence says:

    You said it, pal. I’m a high school English teacher, and I have been swimming upstream against my colleagues love of rubrics, which assign point values for things like spelling and indentation, and their rampant use of so-called Common Writing Assessments — lord help me do they love those babies.
    Instead, we ought to reward content over form by a large margin. Does the writing move you, entertain you, engage you? Those are the right questions.
    I wrote for a newspaper for many years before I started teaching. I naively thought my new colleagues would be eager to hear what I had to say about writing — certainly print journalists only survive if their writing is entertaining and engaging.
    I tried to stress voice and ideas as foundational. They ignored me, argued with me and never, ever took my thoughts on writing seriously. And I’m the only published author in the department.
    A few of my buddies, who think I’ve got a unique contribution to make, are sweet and encouraging but afraid of some of our more dominating colleagues.
    You sure do have their number. I wish they had yours.

  • janine robinson says:

    Wow, you sure got that right! I’ve been tutoring students on these essays for at least six years and was shocked at the essays my students brought me, which had high marks from their English teacher–but were terrible. I don’t blame the teachers, since most aren’t writers and don’t know how to teach writing.

    The truth is this type of writing can be taught and learned.

    Usually, all it takes is someone who can help students understand what makes a great essay and offer some tools so they can craft their own. Once they find a good story, it’s usually not that hard to tell.

    It does worry me how many students are out there who are getting bogus advice, and could hurt their chances at getting in schools they deserve to attend. Thanks for help correcting some of the assumptions out there–that’s really all we can do.

    @Suffering in Silence I feel your pain. I, too, have a journalism background and tried to share my writing knowledge with peers when I was earning my secondary English teaching credential. I was shocked at the resistance. I’m afraid many teachers are intimidated by their lack of writing knowledge. Bravo to you for trying to change the thinking.

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