In all of our years working with students navigating the highly selective college admissions process, one takeaway we have is that college admissions essay writing is quite bad overall. It’s so bad in fact that several years go by between instances in which we read very good college essays that we had no hand in helping shape. That’s right — that college essay that you think is fantastic is probably closer to terrible than fantastic. This dearth of good college essays speaks to the fact that high school students in this country (and you should read the college essays from international students as those are, understandably, even worse) tend not to be able to write particularly well. In fact, to put it in the vernacular, their writing just plain sucks.
So if you think that your child is a good writer, know that statistically speaking, he probably isn’t. And just because he got a perfect score on the writing portion of his SAT, that doesn’t mean that he can craft powerful and moving college admissions essays either. Because he probably can’t. To accomplish this, a student needs to have a firm grasp of the English language and a unique writing style. Surprisingly, few do. And by few, we mean that every several years one outstanding high schooler’s essays just plain surprise us. But imagine how many college admissions essays we read in between those years! Thousands and thousands.
Students have the opportunity to showcase their unique voices to college admissions officers in their college admissions essays, but it’s the rare exception when they actually are able to accomplish this feat. If you’re a parent, chances are slim that your child is the exception to this rule. If you’re a student, we hate to break the news to you but unless you’re a major outlier, your writing probably isn’t as good as you think it is. Sorry to break this news to you.
Now that school is out for summer, it’s time to start to write your college essays! You no longer have schoolwork and studying to use as an excuse. Now is the perfect time to begin the process of brainstorming exactly what you’re going to write about for college admissions counselors to read. And then once you’re done brainstorming, it’s time to start actually typing those essays! If you wait until the fall, you’ll be inundated with schoolwork all over again and you’ll be sorry you didn’t take advantage of the summer months to write possibly the most important essays you’ll ever write.
While five years ago, students who applied to highly selective colleges tended to apply to 9 to 12 universities, students now often apply to as many as 15 colleges. And there are even some students who apply to the maximum number of colleges allowed by the Common App. That would mean that they apply to 20 colleges. Yes, you read that figure correctly! And if you’re wondering, we at Ivy Coach think applying to 20 colleges is completely over the top. But even if you’re applying to, say, 12 to 15 colleges, know that you’ve got a whole lot of college essays ahead of you to write.
In addition to the two essays on the Common App, many highly selective colleges have supplemental essays. In fact, some of the highly selective colleges have as many as 5 or 6 supplemental essays! So don’t think just because you’ve knocked out the two Common App. essays that you’re done. You’re a long way from done. You’re closer to just getting started! So start brainstorming…and start writing your college essays! Now. Seriously.
Over the years, we’ve heard from many students who’ve told us that they had their high school English teachers look over their college essays. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s always good to have additional eyes read your college essay writing. Your English teacher may well be able to offer some great feedback. Maybe he or she will correct some grammar or find a typo. Maybe she’ll recommend that you start your college essay at a different point. Maybe she’ll tell you to scrap it entirely and write an essay on another subject.
But, over the years, we’ve also noticed what high school English teachers do wrong. For instance, we’ve seen college essays that high school English teachers have scrutinized by removing any sentences that begin with “and” or “but.” BUT there is nothing wrong with beginning sentences in such a conversational way in your college essays. Maybe it’s not best practices according to grammar queens but, in the highly selective college admissions process, you want to strike an informal tone that captures your unique writing voice.
Also, high school English teachers like students to stick within a finite structure in their college essays. But this structure is often not original. It’s often not special. And it won’t set you apart from the thousands of other college applicants. So before you start taking all of your advice from your well-meaning high school English teacher, you might want to think twice. Not all college essay advice is good advice and that’s the bottom line!