A Former College Admissions Officer on Teaching College Essays by Amy Estersohn

my-small-page-notebookAs fall rolls into winter, I’m noticing that a lot of high school writing teachers are writing about teaching the college essay to their students.

I have a little bit to say about college essays.  Actually, I have a lot to say about college essays.  Before I was a classroom teacher, I read about 4,000 college applications over three years as a college admissions officer.   

If you work on college essays with your students, here are five things I want you to know about teaching college essays:

1.  A college essay is not the beauty pageant section of the application.

I’ve talked to dozens of students over the years who fear that their essays are going to receive the Simon Cowell (or insert harsh reality TV judge of your choice) treatment when they are being read by admissions officers.  As a result, a lot of student writers start aggressively self-editing ideas before they even start to write…. Their ideas aren’t impressive enough, their writing isn’t sparkly enough, etc. etc. etc.  As a result, the essays they submit are mild, canned narratives about a time they did something notable or won an award.

Here’s what I like to say to that kind of writer: a college admissions officer is going to have a lot of data points about you when he or she is reading your essay, including your performance on standardized exams, your academic history, your accomplishments and extracurricular activities, and recommendations from your past teachers.  If you try to present yourself as more impressive than who you are, college admissions officers will be able to tell that something fishy is going on.

Instead, college admissions officers are looking for evidence that you are thinking about something, that you can organize your thinking, and that you understand how to present yourself professionally in writing.

2.  Diagnose and treat common college essay issues.

Early drafts of student essays tend to fall into one of two categories: Play it Safe or Mile Wide, Inch Deep.

Students whose essays fall into the Play it Safe category write a story where readers can easily predict the ending and the message, if one exists.  An example of a Play it Safe essay is one where a student writes about overcoming a rough sports season to win a tournament is going to write about the importance of optimism and hard work.  The essay could be adequately written and could demonstrate an understanding of how to use word choice to impact meaning or how to vary sentence structure to engage the reader.  However, a Play it Safe essay lacks engagement and entanglement with a complex idea.

Encourage Play it Safe writers to consider a difficult question their essays could address. For example, how do you save face during a demoralizing season? What does it feel like to be an athlete on a team where the games aren’t well-attended by the student body?  If you play on a team where your games are well-attended, what does it feel like to have such a big audience for your victories and your fumbles?   What does it feel like when a coach says something like, “You’ll play better next time, I know it,” and then you don’t?  Is the coach lying, trying to be optimistic, or a little bit of both?

Students who write Mile Wide, Inch Deep essays have a lot to say, but in saying so much about their background, their hobbies, and their families, they often lose sight of an interesting story.  Find the golden nugget sentence in their essays and tell students to make that golden nugget sentence the first line of a brand-new essay that will only be on that one topic.  Remind Mile Wide, Inch Deep writers (again) that college admissions officers are going to come into an application knowing a lot more about the student than what’s on the essay, so there is no need to review what the admissions officer is already going to know.

(Side note: it might be worthwhile to go through the Common Application as a class to show writers what the admissions officer is going to know, including things whether the writer has moved around during high school, what his parents do for a living, how many siblings she has, and what he might want to study in college.

3.  Better to have many mediocre drafts than one near-perfect piece.

Depending on how many colleges a student applies to and what the applications look like, a single student may have to produce between 1 and 15 original pieces of writing for his college applications.  The more mediocre drafts and half-baked ideas a student is able to get down, the easier it will be to churn out an answer to a question like “What do you do for fun?” and “Explain something meaningful to you.”

If you teach writing workshop, you may ask students to write a page or so a day for a span of several weeks.  Invite them to write about what they think about in the shower, what they think about on long runs, what keeps them up at night.    It’s no secret that I enjoy writing in a small notebook… so that when I draft, I can write more pages and then brag to my writer friends about how many pages of rough work I produced.

4.  You (English teacher) shouldn’t be the only one reading a near-finished college essay.

I have always encouraged students to share their work with family members, coaches, clergy, and friends for feedback.  Sometimes we as teachers only see the student in one way and approach a piece of writing through an assessment lens and an assessment lens only.  If a student shares an essay draft with a trusted person in their lives, they’ll get the kind of feedback that’s most important to the essay: a check on whether this essay sounds like them or not.

5.  It should be clear from the first paragraph what the essay is mostly about and what issue, conflict, or question it will address.

This is probably my most non-standard advice.  Writers love to play, and part of creative and valuable play is play with leads.  Student writers often try blind leads, where they leave the reader guessing on setting, characters, and central issues until partway through the piece.  We see this kind of trick all the time when we read, so of course we want to try it ourselves.

However, this trick is likely to backfire when the admissions officer reading an application is underslept, overcaffeinated, and on application 72 of their weekend expectation of 80.  It is likelier to confuse and frustrate the reader.  On the other hand, if the writer makes it clear what the essay will mostly be about from the first paragraph, it allows the reader a smoother time reading through the thoughts to follow.

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in Westchester County, NY.   She also reviews comic books for http://www.noflyingnotights.com.   Follow her on Twitter at @HMX_MSE.




3 thoughts on “A Former College Admissions Officer on Teaching College Essays by Amy Estersohn

  1. Amy Rasmussen December 18, 2016 at 1:58 pm Reply

    Thanks for this post, Amy. Saving this to share with my juniors in the spring. Every bit of advice I find that will help them write better college essays, the better. They often believe others over me. Go figure.


  2. Bliss Bednar December 9, 2016 at 9:16 am Reply

    What do you think about a college essay that is more of a narrative? I try to get students to focus on a specific incident and tell it as more of a story.


    • Amy Estersohn (@HMX_MsE) December 9, 2016 at 10:46 am Reply

      Storytelling is great! I would encourage the student to draft a story of their lives and then revise that story in a way that allows the reader to know most of what will happen from the first paragraph on.

      I would also steer students away from stories where the meaning, message, and ending are crystal clear (e.g. I won the soccer tournament because I worked hard.)


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