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Posted at 6:45 AM ET, 11/ 3/2009

Question 1: How to write the college application essay?

By Valerie Strauss

A new college admissions book, “You’re Accepted” by Katie Malachuk, advises applicants NOT to show their family or friends their college essays, and to be brutally honest about their experiences, more honest than they might be with their friends.
“I encourage you not to let parents, brothers, sisters or close friends currently applying read your essays,” wrote Malachuk, a former admissions director for Teach for America. “ It’s too hard for them to read your work without their own filters....Often the most compelling essays I’ve written or seen are so honest and revealing that the author (including me) would not share them with close friends or family ... Some were about dramatic stuff, like childhood abuse...”
Does that sound like a good strategy?

Henry Broaddus
Dean of admission
College of William & Mary, VA

Students should be allowed to choose whether they share their personal statements with others before submitting them, but there’s no hard and fast rule. The danger with seeking feedback, of course, is that they may encounter pressure to change the voice of their writing into something less reflective of themselves. On the other hand, a reader who knows them well may offer useful suggestions that contribute to clarity and authenticity. The most important thing is that the student’s essay be his or her own work, but that doesn’t preclude seeking feedback from others. To treat the application essay as a confessional, however, is not advisable. We want personal insight, not tabloid disclosure.

Tony Bankston
Dean of Admissions
Illinois Wesleyan University

Some students will undoubtedly mistake "brutal honesty" with "shock value." The object shouldn’t be about making the essay stand out due to it’s content as much as it should still focus on finding a way to say something positive about the author. For some students, the advice to be "brutally honest" makes sense. If the student has under performed during high school primarily due to a lack of effort, I think it’s a smart move to admit to the fact and hopefully offer some evidence as to why or how that may change in college. If a student is a die hard conservative who will only feel comfortable on a conservative campus, then there’s nothing wrong with sharing some strong political viewpoints in the essay. If a school doesn’t admit the applicant because they don’t think they will fit in well on their more liberal campus, I think that can actually be a good thing when it comes to finding the right fit.

Martha Allman
Director of Admissions
Wake Forest University, NC

Adult editing of student writing can often take away the voice, the personality, the clarity, the unique edge of the writing and sanitize it into a dull, lifeless albeit structurally sound essay. This type of editing can put the student in the ‘generic’ category which could ultimately cost her an acceptance.

Christine Mica
Dean of University Admissions
The Catholic University of America, Washington D.C.

Students should be honest in everything they submit to an admissions office, including any experiences they write about in an essay. Should their essay be something personal that they do not want to share with friends and family (something embarrassing, a personal struggle, a loving memory) that is understandable and OK. But that should be a personal choice because of what is written, not a blanket statement.
Having someone else read the college essay can indeed be helpful in terms of grammatical errors, flow, etc. Plus, in some cases, friends and family can encourage the writer to actually dig deeper and remind them of things they should include that the writer may feel are too personal.

Luke Hodson
Director of Admissions Operations
Berea College, KY

Applicants should consider the college essay as an opportunity to share something significant about themselves that might otherwise go unnoticed. Often, what makes for a strong essay is a personal experience that has had a transformative effect on the student. Since these experiences are often quite personal, some students may choose not to share their essay with those who are closest to them and that is perfectly acceptable. In the end, colleges want the essay to be truthful and honestly written. It should not be a work of fiction, but a thoughtful reflection that accurately depicts the student’s point of view. Ultimately, what is shared in an essay helps to inform the admissions decision as to whether the student is a good fit for the institution. In that regard, any misrepresentation in the essay could actually be a disservice to the applicant.

Angel B. Perez
Director of Admission
Pitzer College, CA

I don’t suggest a student submit an essay without any guidance. Even experienced writers can use a second pair of eyes on their work, but its important that students don’t lose their voice in the process. When I read an essay, I look for authenticity and original voice. I expect the student to sound like a 16 or 17 year-old, not a published author with many years of experience.

Lorne T. Robinson
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid
Macalester College. MN

I think it’s perfectly fine for applicants to ask for feedback on their essays from parents, teachers, and friends. Gathering and incorporating feedback is part of the process of producing good writing. That being said, I think it’s also important that applicants retain ownership of their writing and preserve their own voice. It’s pretty easy to tell when an essay has been over-edited by a student’s 43-year-old lawyer dad. As far as being "brutally honest" goes... honesty is much preferred over the alternative. I’m not sure what "brutally" honest means in terms of an application essay. We’re just trying to get to know a real, live human being from a pile of paper. It’s authenticity that matters most. If being "brutally" honest fits the person, that’s fine, but if it doesn’t, then it just won’t be as helpful to us in getting to know an applicant.

Jerome A. Lucido
Vice Provost for Enrollment Policy and Management
Executive Director, Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice
University of Southern California

You be you. Writing honestly, either with brutality or kindness, is the best strategy. If withholding the essay from your family or friends yields greater honesty, so be it, but hoarding your essay certainly does not guaranty authenticity and a proof reader is often helpful. This is the time for your voice to be heard by your application readers, so represent yourself with integrity.

Ken Huus
Dean of Admissions
Sweet Briar College, VA

I would absolutely encourage students to show their essays to friends and family members for feedback and editing. The last thing admissions committees want to see is poorly written/constructed application essays. As far as honesty, I would agree that students ought to be honest - at least as far as they are comfortable. An application essay is not "therapy;" this is not the time to confess your deepest, darkest secret to an unknown reader. An essay is a great opportunity to provide some insight to the reader into who you are as an applicant. But it’s also important to remember that this is still an application for admission to a college of interest.

Eileen Brangan Mell
Director of Public Relations
Worcester Polytechnic Institute, MA

The directive to be brutally honest and to keep the contents of the essay from any one in your circle of acquaintances is a bit overstated, but still valid advice. There is a strong temptation to merchandize yourself in the college admissions process, to the point where we actually get high quality, individually produced brochures that feature an applicant’s’ academic and personal achievements. The students who subject their essays to the scrutiny of others lose an opportunity to speak in their own voice directly to the admissions reviewers. All of the other elements of an admissions application reflect the views of others -- the transcript, the recommendations, the test scores. The essay is the student’s chance to express his own views, and, to that end, should be as unvarnished as possible.

By Valerie Strauss  | November 3, 2009; 6:45 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college admissions, writing the essay  
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Next: Question 2: What should students NEVER write in their essay?


My child's school (she is currently a college senior who was accepted to all the schools she applied to) had a unit in English devoted to writing an application essay. My child wrote a rather odd essay (the topic had something to do with being disallusioned) Her English teacher thought the essay was fabulous, novel and eye catching. Her creative writing teacher thought it was poor, too childish, offputting. So my take is that one persons gold is another person fools gold. By the way my child did use her essay.

Posted by: rit21042 | November 3, 2009 8:57 AM | Report abuse

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