College Confidential Essay

In my humble opinion, the single biggest reason quality applicants get rejected from elite colleges is their inability to understand and execute essays. When people ask me, “Dave, wha’s the biggest problem you see among today’s high school students?” I don’t have to think twice: It’s their inability to formulate and articulate a convincing written argument.

Compounding this problem is the unique challenge of the elite college application. Admission committees at these top schools aren’t looking to hear about your summer vacation to Europe or your plan to end world hunger. In fact, they are much more interested in hearing your observations about the frequency of cars running yellow lights at the intersection near your home or how many years it has taken for that oak sapling outside your front window to push up the sidewalk slabs next to it.

You’re probably asking yourself why on earth anyone could be more interested in your intersection or oak tree than your great trip or humanitarian ideals. The answer is simple: Because the intersection and that oak tree can tell more about who you are and how you think. As you read a few samples of real-life college essays, notice how the writers reveal themselves, their attitudes, preferences, strengths, and even weaknesses, in a series of everyday situations. Their lives are no more exciting or glamorous than yours is. The difference between your writing style and theirs, though, may be due to your lack of understanding of how to speak through your writing in your own unique “voice.”

Voice is that elusive quality that allows your reader to hear you talking without the aid of your spoken words. Tha’s what makes the great novelists so great. Think about Steven King and D.H. Lawrence, or essayists like Andy Rooney, and even humorists like Dave Barry (no, not me; I’m Dave Berry). Once you’ve read these people’s writing, you feel as though you’ve seen the world through their eyes and, if you had the chance to meet them, they would probably talk just like they write. If you don’t believe me, just watch Andy Rooney’s spot at the end of 60 minutes some Sunday evening, then read one or two of his columns in the newspaper or one of his excellent essay collections. He sounds just like he reads. He reveals himself through his writing. Therein lies your essay challenge.

Paperback – 299 pages; Mentor Books

100 Successful College Application Essays has been around for a while. On the cover, under the two authors’ names is the additional phrase “With Members of the Staff of The Harvard Independent.” There’s that name again. I have to wonder if Mentor Books’ marketing department would have included that extra byline had those “members” been associated with The Bowling Green Independent. I guess we’ll never know.

I fancy myself as something of a connoisseur of application essays, having even written about them at great length in America’s Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer’s Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools (Princeton Review-Random House 2001). In light of that, I have to say that I wasn’t all that impressed with the “successful” essays presented in this book. Granted, some of the writers got into very prestigious colleges and the essays’ critical commentaries come from one college admissions director and a large group of prep school counselors and admissions staffers. I would have preferred the balance of reviewers to be more heavily weighted toward college admissions people, but that’s just me.

In my view, this collection of essays suffers in comparison to the examples proffered by Harry Bauld in his legendary On Writing the College Application Essay (Barnes and Noble Books, 1987). Bauld gives us the good and the bad. We can profit by seeing what and how not to write. Here, the authors’ approach is to guide by “successful” example only, a tact that can be risky. Why? Well, we don’t get to see some of the other supporting aspects of these writers’ applications. Obviously, they didn’t all get into their respective colleges on the weight of their essays.

Bauld, by comparison, shows us how even borderline candidates can strongly bolster their admission chances by carefully examining their lives and writing about seemingly innocuous issues. For example, Bauld rhapsodizes on the greatness of one student’s lead: “I do some of my best thinking in the bathroom.” Sheer poetry.

Another curious aspect of this book about “successful” essays is that some of the commentaries are less than laudatory. For example, one commentator notes about a Princetonian’s essay: “This essay is a nice one which [sic] unfortunately falls a little short. The topic is fun to read about, but the ending leaves a great deal to be desired. I am left with-what was the subject? Didn’t he have another paragraph?”

Hmm. Sounds like this applicant may have had some other things going for him. I have to wonder why the authors would have included an essay that elicited such a less-than-flattering comment from its reviewer.

To be fair, there are some good, even unique essays here with some appropriate critical analyses. However, this reviewer recommends that if you’re looking for the quickest and most fun way to get from Point A, where your writing is now, to Point B, producing a successful college application essay, get Bauld. To paraphrase Churchill, with Bauld, never has so much writing wisdom been packed into so few pages containing such enjoyment.

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