The Perfect College Essay? Check Your Exaggeration, Drama And Self-Aggrandizing At The Door

Nov 12, 2013
Originally published on October 29, 2013 3:18 pm

It’s that time of year again. Otherwise well-adjusted high school seniors melt down in stress-induced tantrums and parents hover over their desks demanding, “Is it done?”

The issue, of course, is the college application essay. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, about 750,000 students will be writing them this season, as they apply to anywhere between three and 15 school each.

This leaves students and parents asking: What makes a good essay? And what makes a bad one? Educational consultant Dave Marcus joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to offer his advice.

Interview Highlights: Dave Marcus

On the three biggest mistakes students make

“There are a lot of mistakes, but I would name three of them: 1) They take way too long to start—they warm up their engines I like to say. 2) They are really vague and we don’t get a sense of who they are. 3) A lot of kids feel they have to boast, they have to impress the admissions office—it’s not that way; it’s wrong.”

Essay topics to avoid

“When possible, avoid the D’s. The D’s are: divorce, disease, death, disabilities. The reason is that, when you think of a kid who’s lived 17 years, that often is the thing that seems like the most important event—the grandmother dies, somebody was ill in the family, somebody has a disease in the family—but it’s, often, the simpler moments that are far more interesting to go into.”

On parents writing their kids’ essays

“It’s a huge problem, but I will tell you that someone who reads a lot of essays a year and someone who talks to admissions people all the time, they can, usually, know an authentic 17-year-old’s voice. When adults write them, frankly, they sound like adults writing them and pretending to be 17-year-old’s. It’s terrible … if you are a C student in English and your SAT or ACT scores in English are bad, and all of a sudden you turn in this marvelous, philosophical essay about what the debt crisis means in Africa, somebody knows that something is going on.”

Guest

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

And it is college application essay season, the time of year when otherwise well-adjusted high school seniors melt down into stress-induced tantrums while their parents hover over their desks and computers and ask if it's done yet.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, about 750,000 students will be writing essays this season. They will be applying to anywhere between three and 15 schools.

So what makes a good essay and what makes a bad one? Joining us with answers is Dave Marcus, an independent educational consultant and interviewer for Brown University. His most recent book is "Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges and Find Themselves." Dave, welcome.

DAVE MARCUS: Thank you.

HOBSON: Well, let's get right into this. What are the biggest mistakes that students make when they are writing their college essays?

MARCUS: Jeremy, there are a lot of mistakes, but I would name three of them. One is that they take way too long to start. They warm up their engines, as I say. The second one is that they're really vague, and we don't get a sense of who they are. And the third is that a lot of kids feel they have to boast, they have to impress the admissions office. It's not that way. That's wrong.

HOBSON: What about topics? Do people focus on topics for these essays that they shouldn't?

MARCUS: I work with a lot of kids, and I say when possible, avoid the D's. The D's are divorce, disease, death, disabilities. And the reason is that when you think about a kid who's lived 17 years, that often is the thing that seems like the most important event - the grandmother dies, somebody was ill in the family, somebody has a disease in the family. But it's often the simpler moments that are far more interesting to go into.

HOBSON: Why is that? Because you would think that there might be some great, profound thoughts that come out of experiences like that.

MARCUS: Right. But let's be honest - and you're 17. Generally, your most profound thoughts are really not that more profound than anybody who's sitting in the same room with you. And I would say that for a lot of us who are in our 50s too. But the thing is that it's uncanny how many good essays come from really common experiences.

So I'll give you an example. I was talking to somebody from Princeton, and he said that the best essay he read that year - it was a couple of years ago - was just an essay about a family having dinner, the conversations that took place, the things the kid learned.

And oddly enough, when I was interviewing a young woman for Brown, she wrote a fantastic essay about her dinner conversations. Her mom was a Republican. Her dad was a Democrat, and she felt caught in the middle and her siblings were on different sides. And they had fiery debates at their dinners, and it was just - it was a great essay. By the time I read that essay, I felt like I knew her, and that's before I interviewed her.

HOBSON: Well, what does an essay need to achieve? What is your golden rule about what it ought to be?

MARCUS: Let's think about what else the college sees. The college sees, of course, your grade point average, your activities, your internships, sports and the big tests, as I call them - the SAT or the ACT and so forth. What they don't see, what they don't get usually is a glimpse into your soul, and that's what an essay should be. What do you love doing? What do you want to do in 10 years? What was your biggest failure? Those are the kinds of things.

So — so often, someone will write an essay about, let's say, taking physics class, but it'll just be about how great she did in the physics class. It's much more interesting to read an essay about a class where a kid struggled.

HOBSON: Well, Dave, let's get to some real examples. We asked listeners to send us their essays. We got some. You have seen them. I want to get through a few of them.

Here is one. This is from a student who describes his first trip to his family's native Croatia. He writes: The morning of departure is always the most depressing. I have to say goodbye to my favorite place that has had such an impact on my life. Croatia is a wonderful place to visit, but it always reminds me of how far my family has come. Like my grandfather who spent years in a refugee camp, my father who was born in a house without electricity. What do you think of that one, Dave Marcus?

MARCUS: I love that. And one of the reasons I love that is when you have a first sentence that tells a reader, read more, find out more, that's a great thing. The morning of departure is always the most depressing. That's a fantastic way to hook the reader.

HOBSON: All right. What about this hook? It starts on this other essay: Plato once said let parents bequeath to their children not riches but the spirit of reverence. Three years ago, I would've scoffed at that quote and said, my parents don't deserve anything from me. My thoughts? All the nights spent alone, shuffling to make my brothers sandwiches for dinner. All the mornings waking up late, rushing to the bus with mismatched shoes. All the afternoons dialing everyone in my contacts in hopes of scoring a ride so I wouldn't have to walk home. All of which could've been avoided if my parents were like everyone's around me: American.

MARCUS: That's a really tricky one because starting with a quote often to me says, oh, here's a student who looked at quotations.com and randomly came up with a quote. But that one weaves right into what's really happening and makes you think what it's like to be an immigrant kid. My parents came from this other place, had this other existence. Maybe I'm a little bit embarrassed by them. Maybe I don't understand why they work so hard. You see the interior dialogue of the student, trying to figure out how to respect parents. It's great stuff.

HOBSON: Are you in favor of quotes?

MARCUS: I tell students usually that the admissions office wants to know, in this case, not how you can research a good quote but how you can write - what your voice is, what's inside of you. So I usually tell the kids to avoid quotes when possible.

HOBSON: Well, here is one more, from a student describing how he was hit by a car in eighth grade on his way home from school. He writes: And then I wake up, the light flooding into my eyes and my head searing in pain. I was just as confused as you may be right now. What had just happened? Was that a dream? I had woken up lost. I tried looking around, but my head yelled at me to rest. Then I see my mom and my nerves relax.

MARCUS: That's a tricky one because I mentioned the D's, which include depression, divorce and, of course, disaster. But it's all in the writing. That is interesting writing. And if the student can really make us feel like we're there, maybe even have an odd take on it, a sense of humor about it, that can work. But I'll tell you that some cliched topics just don't work.

For instance, I see so many essays about my time in Nicaragua, which turns out usually to be 14 days, when the parents spent $5,000 sending them there, when I built a home for the poor and I painted a school and I taught a whole village of kids how to speak English in 14 days. Those are terrible essays. They're about experiences that were purchased, about service that was imposed by parents. So I tell kids avoid those essays. They're cliches.

HOBSON: Now, Dave, before I let you go, I have to ask you what many people are probably thinking right now, which is don't the parents just write a lot of these essays anyway?

MARCUS: Well, since you said that, I was working with students on Long Island a few years ago, and a mom asked me to write her daughter's essay. The daughter was really busy with field hockey, by the way.

(LAUGHTER)

MARCUS: And I said she's a cool kid. I like her. I'm not going to college with her. I'm not writing her essays in college. It's a huge problem. But I will tell you that as someone who reads a lot of essays a year and someone who talks to admissions people all the time, they can usually know an authentic 17-year-old's voice. When adults write them, frankly, they sound like adults are writing and pretending to be 17-year-olds. It's terrible.

HOBSON: And what do they do? Do they go back and say this is not fair, your parents wrote this, or what?

MARCUS: There have been times when colleges have called and asked. And there are a lot of points they're looking at. So if you're a C student in English and your SAT or ACT scores in English are bad, and all of sudden, you turn in this marvelous, philosophical essay about, you know, what the debt crisis means in Africa, somebody knows that something is going on.

HOBSON: Dave Marcus has been a high school teacher, an independent educational consultant and an interviewer for Brown University. His most recent book is "Acceptance." Dave, thank you so much for your tips.

MARCUS: I enjoyed it.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

So people taking notes, no essays about the debt crisis and what it means in Africa.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: What its effect in Africa has been. They'll know it's your parents writing it. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.