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How NOT to write a college application essay

[This is my Local Living section column for July 1, 2010.]

I had lunch recently with two rising 12th-graders at the Potomac School in McLean. They were very bright students. They told me they had signed up for a course in column-writing in the fall.

Naturally, I was concerned. There is enough competition for us newspaper columnists already: bloggers, TV commentators, former presidential advisers, college professors. Many of them write well and make us look unnecessary. The idea that 17-year-olds are getting graduation credit to learn how to do my job fills me with dread.

But I think I know what the Potomac School is up to. They aren’t teaching these kids to write columns. Their real purpose is to show students how to write their college application essays.

Think about it: College essays are essentially columns, little bits of persuasive prose designed to be both personal and instructive, without too much wear-and-tear on the reader.

This reminded me, once again, that I have not matured at all, intellectually or emotionally, since I was 17 and a heck of a college essay writer. My favorite part of being the parent of college applicants was the chance to lecture on the principles of college essay-writing to a captive audience. I wrote a book about college admissions in order to inflict my views on a wider audience. If you have read this far, you know I am doing it again.

Let’s dispense quickly with the basics of writing how not to write a college application essay. The first rule is, do not dwell on your good grades, top scores, club presidencies and other triumphs. The essay is supposed to reveal something the college admissions people have not already learned from the rest of your application. If all you do in your essay is talk about what a star you are, you will be rejected, because no one wants to inflict such a bore on an unsuspecting freshman-year roommate.

Do not be careless with spelling, punctuation and grammar. Don’t forget the best writing has short sentences and active verbs. Read “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White before you start typing.

What else should you do? Write about something you care about, some quirk or habit or interest that defines you in ways not obvious from the rest of your application. One of my children wrote about his Little League coaching. One described her talent for identifying a song on the radio from the first few notes. One explained why he admired Howard Stern.

They found ways to use these themes, even the odd ones, to reveal a personal value that was important to them and, hopefully, impressive to admissions officers. I advised them to take one more step, the only original suggestion you will find in this essay. Reveal an endearing flaw, I said, some bit of self-deprecation that would convince the college that you would be a pleasant person to have around.

Is the essay about your love of chess? Describe the day you set your high school team’s record for being checkmated. Are you writing about your effort to ride every bike trail in the state? Say how you felt when you got hopelessly lost in the woods and had to be guided to safety by a passing Cub Scout troop.

Let others read your work. Listen to their suggestions, but trust your instincts. Be true to yourself.

I am sending this column to that teacher at Potomac who is teaching students to do what I do. If the teacher gives me a grade, I may tell you what it is, as long as it doesn’t rupture my adolescent level of self-esteem.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education web page.

By Jay Mathews  | June 30, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  be self-deprecating, don't dwell on your strengths, how not to write a college essay  
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Comments

Gaack! No, please don't tell innocent students they should read Strunk & White. The authors' advice is so bad that even they often fail to take it, as richly documented by the linguists and syntacticians at the blog Language Log, and especially Geoff Pullum -- e.g., http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1318

Posted by: linsee1 | July 1, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Can we not get column on the following.

NYC is revamping their prekindergarten tests for their gifted program.

The city is using the Bracken School Readiness Assessment, which judges early childhood knowledge like shapes and colors. It is not a gifted measure, but rather a measure of school readiness, as its name indicates.

The city uses the equivalent of 120 I.Q., or the 90th national percentile as the cut-off scores for gifted programs.

Apparently in our democratic society everyone will agree it is fair and best for education of gifted children to separate children before they enter public school based upon scoring the equivalent of 120 I.Q. on a test.

Why would it be so wrong to use a test on all children entering public schools and separating them into classes based on this test? Is it really fair or best for education in NYC to haphazardly place children into classrooms when tests are available for children? Is it not obvious that it is not helpful to education to place children that score the equivalent of 119 I.Q. in classes with children that score the equivalent of 75 I.Q.?

Like most large cities that are plagued with the problems of Title 1 poverty public schools, NYC has enough resources to separate children based upon test results in class rooms where children will have the best chance of obtaining the most from education.

Is it not time for this country in urban areas to stops looking for quick fixes and simply start placing children in class rooms based upon their capabilities and not haphazard chance.

New York Times
New Gifted Testing in New York May Begin at Age 3

Posted by: bsallamack | July 1, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

for bsallamack---good question. Here is mine in return: does it make sense to give children with a 120 IQ a much enriched educational experience and deny that to a child with a 118 IQ?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 1, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

for bsallamack---good question. Here is mine in return: does it make sense to give children with a 120 IQ a much enriched educational experience and deny that to a child with a 118 IQ?

Posted by: Jay Mathews
................................
Jay the question is why not assign all children to classes based upon a test when they enter public school.

If this was done all children would have their education enriched by being with their peers since teachers would be teaching to the level of the class. I doubt that there is anyone in education that would disagree that this would not improve education.

Great Britain tests every child when they enter public school and NYC is already testing large number of children for the gifted program.

Why should not all children receive the benefits of being in classes with their peers instead of being placed in classes haphazardly.

Another question is why this idea is not considered for the urban Title 1 public schools since these school systems have the number of schools where this can be easily implemented.

As for your question 120 was chosen since when 130 was used as a cut off there were too few students.

The idea and benefits of very early gifted programs may or may not be valid, but the benefits of children being placed in classes based upon similar abilities is evidently a benefit.

Not having children of similar abilities in the same class room in urban areas seems as outdated as one room school houses.

I hope that you will post this as a separate column and start getting the opinion of educators.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 1, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

Using IQ tests as sorting devices, especially at young ages, goes against many strongly held American values. If you do that type of sorting you are saying that everyone's intelligence and lot in life are cast in stone. The fact that the validity of IQ tests is questionable adds another wrinkle to their use.

Posted by: stevendphoto | July 1, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Using IQ tests as sorting devices, especially at young ages, goes against many strongly held American values. If you do that type of sorting you are saying that everyone's intelligence and lot in life are cast in stone. The fact that the validity of IQ tests is questionable adds another wrinkle to their use.

Posted by: stevendphoto
..............................
NYC already does this in regard to it's gifted program.

Also the test is is not really a I.Q. test.

The city is using the Bracken School Readiness Assessment, which judges early childhood knowledge like shapes and colors. It is not a gifted measure, but rather a measure of school readiness, as its name indicates.

The test has merit since it places children in classes based upon their abilities for the first year. After the first year there should be yearly methods based upon tests and teachers to determine the placement of children in classes for the next year.

Yes it is easier to simply just throw children into classes at the convenience of the school.

You speak of someone's lot in life as being cast in stone while the current reality is the lot in life of children in public schools becomes a crap shoot. The children that wind up in classes where the class is not overwhelmed by children not prepared for school do better than children throw into a class where there are an overwhelming number of children unprepared for school.

Since this is not method is not based upon I.Q. but simply current abilities the class assignment will change over time. Some children will go up and some children will go down.

One thing is certain about this method is that it is fair to every child, and provides the opportunity for every child to make the most out their education.

I do not believe in using I.Q. for children and/or special gifted programs.

I do believe that it benefits all children to be in classes where there is an attempt to have children of equivalent abilities. This helps all levels of abilities.

There is no point in repeating skills to children that have already mastered the skills while equally there is no point in moving on to new skills when children have not mastered the skills that the new skills depend upon.

I get impatient at public education in this country when there are real solutions to the problems and yet no one is willing to implement them.

This approach may not be needed for every school but it is certainly needed in DC where the results of the 2009 national test in reading were a 56 percent failure rate for the 4th grade. I really do not care who runs the DC school system but a 56 percent failure rate for DC indicates a total disaster of public education in DC. At a failure rates of 56 percent you do not pat yourself on the back but instead start quickly programs that will make a real change in public education.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 2, 2010 2:32 AM | Report abuse

For bsallamack--My other problem with yr idea is that IQ tests given to 2nd and 3rd graders, the usual way that gifted kids are designated in America, are in my experience poor predictors of school achievement for many kids. I analyzed the Jaime Escalante AP Calculus classes and discovered that less than half of the designated gifted kids at Garfield High were in them, and the ones that were were rarely the top performers. I much prefer to have enriched programs that are open to any kids who want to have enriched instruction. The Jeannie Oakes research indicates that putting gifted kids by themselves is fine for the gifted kids, but the bottom groups in yr planned tracking system do worse than when they are placed in classes with better kids who keep the standards up. So what would you do to solve that problem?

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 2, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Well, nothing is often as it it seems. As K. Popper said, the most important lesson of life is in being modest. Boasting about yourself will not get you into the top, so Mr. Mathews is absolutely right.

BTW, you can find more Mathew's wits and smart tips on successful college application essay writing just here: http://www.professays.com/info/how-to-write-college-essay/

Posted by: halejeffery5 | July 2, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

for bsallamack---What do you think of the Success For All tracking system, which has had good results in raising achievement for low income kids. They follow yr plan, but move kids to different tracks, based on their performance, not every year but every six to eight weeks, in reading classes that are kept artificially small by making sure every teacher in the school, including the PE teachers, has a reading class during that 2 hour block.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 2, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Jay's insights on this tracking matter are spot on. Segregating students by ability level is great for the advanced students but has no benefit and in most cases is detrimental to the students who are basic and below. Tracking is nothing new in education. The reforms of the last 40 years or so have tried to eliminate tracking although it still persists in various guises around the country.

Here's my experience. In 7th grade I was in the mainstream track. My social studies teacher thought that I wasn't doing my work because I was always just sitting there, looking around. After further inquiry, my teacher found that I was finishing everything very quickly and accurately and then sitting there bored waiting for the next thing to do. My teacher got me moved to the accelerated track, which funneled me into honors and AP classes in high school and ultimately prepared me for college. Most of the students in the accelerated, honors AP track had been in that track since they were in elementary school when they were TESTED for Gifted and Talented Education (GATE). I was either never tested for GATE or didn't score high enough. I am not sure which. I don't want to limit a student's intellectual growth on the basis of a test. I am sure that there were other smart students in the mainstream track that would have had the trajectory of their lives changed by being exposed to the accelerated curriculum. Thank you Mr. Collins for changing my life.

Posted by: stevendphoto | July 2, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

For bsallamack--My other problem with yr idea is that IQ tests given to 2nd and 3rd graders, the usual way that gifted kids are designated in America, are in my experience poor predictors of school achievement for many kids. I analyzed the Jaime Escalante AP Calculus classes and discovered that less than half of the designated gifted kids at Garfield High were in them, and the ones that were were rarely the top performers. I much prefer to have enriched programs that are open to any kids who want to have enriched instruction. The Jeannie Oakes research indicates that putting gifted kids by themselves is fine for the gifted kids, but the bottom groups in yr planned tracking system do worse than when they are placed in classes with better kids who keep the standards up. So what would you do to solve that problem?

Posted by: Jay Mathews
..............................
I am not a believer of gifted programs, but I am a believer of children being placed in classes based upon there current capabilities.

As for the bottom of the class it is apparent why studies indicate these children do poorly when all of them are placed in the same class. The school gives them usually the worse teacher and expects nothing of the teacher or the children.

The bottom of the class instead of having the worst teacher should have one the best teachers and more resources than other classes. In regard to the bottom class it makes sense to split these children up into even smaller classes than is the norm for the school.

We have to think in terms of English as a second language. Does it make sense to mix children who do not speak English in a general class with children that have no problem in speaking English. No, it makes sense to put children in special class and if possible several special classes where teachers can address the problem of the class.

We have to start to admit that in Title 1 public schools the problem in education is the bottom class or bottom classes. Placing these children in these classes should allow for more resources to be given to overcoming these problems.

If you want to judge schools and teachers than the starting point is to place children in classes by their abilities.

After doing this any school has failed if there is not any movement up from the bottom. Of course it may be impossible to have every child move up from the bottom, but even in the bottom class or bottom classes there should be children that should move up from added resources and better teachers.

Remember we are dealing with 54 percent failure levels at 4th grade reading.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 2, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

great comment and story by stevendphoto. I love true life stories from readers.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 2, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

for bsallamack---What do you think of the Success For All tracking system, which has had good results in raising achievement for low income kids. They follow yr plan, but move kids to different tracks, based on their performance, not every year but every six to eight weeks, in reading classes that are kept artificially small by making sure every teacher in the school, including the PE teachers, has a reading class during that 2 hour block.

Posted by: Jay Mathews
....................................
This sounds like a plan for after primary schools.

I am really more concerned with primary schools since I believe that the largest lasting gains in education can be made by dealing with problems at the primary level.

Other strategies of course should be used for the non primary grades since it will take time for the improvements that can be made at the primary school to move up.

I do believe that the program you describe appears to show the sense of dealing with groups of children based upon there abilities instead of having a single teacher trying to deal with a class of children that have groups with different levels of abilities.

Breaking up children based upon their skills levels will work in any program when the focus is upon improving the needs of the group as appears to be the case in the model you have provided.

Breaking up children based upon their skills levels will not work when the focus of the program is not done for educational benefit to children.

Even a so called "Gifted" program will not work very well if the schools simply see this group as the classes where substitute teachers can be placed when there is a shortage of teachers, or where the worst teachers can be assigned.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 2, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Jay's insights on this tracking matter are spot on. Segregating students by ability level is great for the advanced students but has no benefit and in most cases is detrimental to the students who are basic and below. Tracking is nothing new in education. The reforms of the last 40 years or so have tried to eliminate tracking although it still persists in various guises around the country.
Posted by: stevendphoto
....................................
At one point there has to be recognition that separating students into two classes is not separating children by their abilities.

In a large number of students there are far more levels of current capabilities than just two.

Gifted programs are not the problem for Title 1 public schools where there are 56 percent failure rates in 4th grade reading.

Parents in NYC are spending large amount of money to get their children into pre kindengarten gifted programs. The only reason these parents spend this money and make this effort is because their children will have a chance for a decent education if they are in the "gifted" program instead of the soup where children are placed haphazardly. Most of these parents who do not get into the "gifted" program send their children to private schools since they know any private school is better than allowing their child into the haphazard soup of public schools in an urban area.

If NYC placed all children in classes based upon their current abilities there would not be this live or die hysteria to get into "gifted" programs.

A great deal of the anger against "gifted" programs would disappear if all children were tested and placed in classes based upon their abilities. This would not be a static system and would allow teachers to actually deal with the level of capability of children in a class instead of dealing with the haphazard soup of classes. This type of system would also allow us to drop the meaningless use of "gifted" program since children from the second or even lower level might advance to the first level, while children in the first level might be placed in the second or lower level.

Anger against "gifted" programs is understandable for the current system is that your child is "gifted" and deserves attention or your child is nothing and does not deserve attention.

Parents might want to believe their children are "gifted" but the reality is that few if any are math prodigies like Euler or musical prodigies like Mozart.

Some of the the children that get into "gifted" programs are above average in intelligences while some of these children simply get into these programs because these children appear to be above intelligence. Then of course there are the children of parents that participate greatly in PTA activities that get into the "gifted" program.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 2, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

The Jeannie Oakes research indicates that putting gifted kids by themselves is fine for the gifted kids, but the bottom groups in yr planned tracking system do worse than when they are placed in classes with better kids who keep the standards up. So what would you do to solve that problem?

Posted by: Jay Mathews
.......................
I went to the following web site of Jeannie Oakes.
http://www.tolerance.org/tdsi/asset/ability-grouping-theories

According to the web site video the bottom group was simply the group that was not in the "gifted group".

The video did mention the large amount of diversity of skills and capability in a class room but mentioned no evidence that showed that placing all children in groups that mirrored the different level of skills and abilities would not be beneficial to children.

Separating children into two groups may be beneficial to school administrators but can be called separating children into groups that more closely reflect the skills and abilities of the children when there is such a large amount of diversity.
................
I went to the Sucess For All website that you mentioned.
http://www.successforall.net/Partners/faq.html
This web site of spoke of "cross-grade grouping according to reading performance level" and appears to not be for primary schools.

The fact that there is success in this program indicates that testing and grouping children into various groups based upon current skills and abilities when entering primary schools in Title 1 public schools would have a beneficial impact on the education of children, since this is really simply what Success For All is now doing, but at an earlier age.

In fact implementing this program in the primary schools would lessen the need and expense for this program later on in middle schools.

The high levels of failure rate in reading in the 4th grade indicates that education geared to the specific capabilities and skills of groups of children should be done as early as possible in Title 1 public schools in urban areas.

Why wait to do this in the middle schools when this would be more effective in the primary schools and easier to implement.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 2, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Jay I believe that this be covered in a number of columns.

It seems strange that strategies that work in Title 1 middle school by Success for All are not done in the primary schools where they would be most effective and easier to implement in Title 1 public schools.

The failure rate for DC in the 2009 national test for the 4th grade reading was 56 percent and 49 percent for the 8th grade reading.

These are indication of disaster in Title 1 public schools in urban areas in DC and probably accurately reflect the situation in the majority of Title 1 public schools in urban areas throughout the nation.

Rates of 50 percent illiteracy for growing large numbers of the population are simply not acceptable.

Radical approaches are called for that actually implement ideas that have been proven to be effective instead of the current ideas that have so far demonstrated no real effectiveness.

When over half a city is burning down one needs urgency and not a pretense that unproven methods may be effective in 5 or 10 years.

In business one hears the expression that eggs have to be broken in order to make an omelet. At the same time you better make an omelet when you are breaking eggs. So far the local and national policies in regard to Title 1 public schools in urban areas have broken a lot of eggs without creating any omelets.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 2, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Jay I believe that this "should" be covered in a number of columns.
Sorry for the mistake.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 2, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

thanks bsallamack, good comments. You might find reading one of Oakes' books instructive. If you can cite some recent research pointing to yr idea, or some schools that are using it, that would help me see if there is something to write about. When you read more about success for all, you will see it is primarily focused on the primary grades, 1 to 4. It is all about teaching kids to read.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | July 2, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

thanks bsallamack, good comments. You might find reading one of Oakes' books instructive. If you can cite some recent research pointing to yr idea, or some schools that are using it, that would help me see if there is something to write about. When you read more about success for all, you will see it is primarily focused on the primary grades, 1 to 4. It is all about teaching kids to read.

Posted by: Jay Mathews
...........................
Pretty unnecessary to find examples of success when you already know of examples of success that you yourself brought up regarding Success For All.

As for Oakes, she clearly makes the point that skills levels of children of the same age are very diverse and that they do not benefit from being taught as though their skill levels were the same.

Both of the citations that you gave indicates there is already enough for one or two columns.

I see that you are correct and that Success For All is in primary schools as well as middle schools, but this indicates that there is already evidence that children should be placed in classes based upon their current abilities and skills works in the primary school.

I really think that it is up to you to take the lead in this. I do not have a column on the Washington Post. Please let me know if you intend to take the lead.

Posted by: bsallamack | July 2, 2010 7:36 PM | Report abuse

I am more concerned with how the school experience affects our kids. I am developing a new index, the "Misery Index." Read about it at my blog, the Coalition for Kid-Friendly Schools:

http://kidfriendlyschools.blogspot.com/

Posted by: FedUpMom | July 4, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

<<< The Jeannie Oakes research indicates that putting gifted kids by themselves is fine for the gifted kids, but the bottom groups in yr planned tracking system do worse than when they are placed in classes with better kids who keep the standards up.

I'm always curious about this line of argument. There's a tendency to think that more capable and motivated kids (I'm purposely avoiding the word "gifted") will do just fine regardless of their setting and therefore we don't need to concern ourselves as much with them. But when you look at the percentage of low-income children who need remediation or who struggle or fail in higher education, it's pretty clear that they're not "just fine." I'm not arguing in favor of tracking as traditionally practiced. But I am concerned that undereducating a potentially high-achieving child is as grave an injustice as educating a less capable child below an absolute standard.

But that's not how we keep score, is it?

Posted by: rpondiscio | July 6, 2010 7:04 AM | Report abuse

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