Many high school seniors find essay writing the most challenging step on the road to college, more stressful even than their final exams. Pressure to excel in the college application process has intensified in recent years as students feel it’s tougher than ever to get into a good school.
Some well-off families, hungry to get an edge, are willing to pay as much as US$16,000 (HK$125,000) for essay-writing guidance in what one consultant pitches as a four-day “application boot camp.”
Whereas other students will rely on parents, teachers or counsellors for free advice as hundreds of thousands nationwide race to meet a key deadline for college applications.
Malcolm Carter, 17, a senior who attended an essay workshop this month at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, said the process took him by surprise because it was so different from analytical techniques learnt over years as a student. The college essay, he learnt, is nothing like the standard five-paragraph English class essay that analyses a text.
“I thought I was a good writer at first,” Carter said. “I thought, ‘I got this.’ But it’s just not the same type of writing.”
Admission deans want applicants to do their best and make sure they get a second set of eyes on their words. But they also urge them to relax.
“Sometimes, the fear or the stress out there is that the student thinks the essay is passed around a table of imposing figures, and they read that essay and put it down and take a yea or nay vote, and that determines the student’s outcome,” said Tim Wolfe, associate provost for enrolment and dean of admission at the College of William & Mary. “That is not at all the case.”
Wolfe called the essay one more way to learn something about an applicant. “I’ve seen rough essays that still powerfully convey a student’s personality and experiences,” he said. “And on the flip side, I’ve seen pristine, polished essays that don’t communicate much about the students and are forgotten a minute or two after reading them.”
Like many schools, William & Mary, assigns at least two readers for each application. Sometimes, essays get another look when an admissions committee is making their decision.
Most experts say a great essay cannot compensate for an average academic record. But it can play a significant role in shaping perceptions of an applicant and might tip the balance in a borderline case.
Essays and essay excerpts from students who have won admission are shared widely on the Internet, but it’s impossible to know how much weight those words carried in the final decision. One student took a daring approach to a Stanford University essay this year. He wrote, simply, “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times. And he got in.
There is an abundance of advice about essays, some of it obvious: Show, don’t tell. Don’t rehash your résumé. Avoid cliches and pretentious words. Proofread. “That means actually having a living, breathing person - not just a spell-checker - actually read your essay,” Wolfe said.
But make sure that person doesn’t cross the line between useful feedback and meddlesome revision, or worse. (Looking at you, moms and dads.)
“It’s very obvious to us when an essay has been written by a 40-year-old and not a 17-year-old,” said Angel Pérez, vice president of enrolment and student success at Trinity College. “I’m not looking for a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. And I get pretty skeptical when I see it.”
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Some wealthy parents buy help for their children from consultants who market their services through such brands as College Essay Guy, Essay Hell and Your Best College Essay.
Michele Hernández, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, based in Vermont and Massachusetts, said her team charges US$16,000 for a four-day boot camp to help clients develop their applications. Or a family can pay US$2,500 for five hours of one-on-one essay tutoring. She acknowledged, however, there are troubling questions about the influence of wealth in college admissions.
“The equity problem is serious,” Hernández said. “College consultants are not the problem.
Christopher Hunt, with a business in Colorado called College Essay Mentor, charges US$3,000 for an “all-college-all-essays package” with as much guidance as clients want or need, from brainstorming to final drafts.
He said the industry is growing because of a cycle rooted in anxiety. As the volume of applications grows, now topping 40,000 a year at Stanford and 100,000 at the University of California at Los Angeles, admission rates fall. That, in turn, fuels worries of prospective applicants from around the world.
“Most of my inquiries come from students,” Hunt said. “They are at ground zero of the college craze, aware of the competition, and know what they need to compete.”
At Wheaton High in Maryland, it cost nothing for students to drop in on a college essay workshop offered during the lunch hour a couple of weeks before the early application deadline. Cynthia Hammond Davis, the college and career information coordinator, provided pizza, and Leslie Atkin, an English composition assistant, provided tips in a room full of college applicants.
Her first piece of advice: Don’t bore the reader. “It should be as much fun as telling your best friend a story,” she said. “You’re going to be animated about it.” Atkin also outlined a four-step framework for writing: describe an event, discuss how that anecdote highlights key character traits, define a significant moment and reflect on the outcome.
“Wrap it up with a nice package and a bow,” she said. “They don’t have to be razzle-dazzle. But they need to say, ‘Read me!’ ”
As an example, Hammond Davis distributed an essay written by a 2017 Wheaton High graduate now at Rice University. In it, Anene “Daniel” Uwanamodo likened himself to a trampoline – a student leader who helps serve as a launchpad for others. “Regardless of race, gender or background, trampolines will offer their uplifting influence to any who request it,” he wrote.
Soaking this in were students aiming for the University of Maryland at College Park, Towson, Howard and Johns Hopkins universities, Virginia Tech, the University of Chicago and a special scholars programme at Montgomery College. One planned to write about a terrifying car accident, another about her mother’s death and a third about how varsity basketball shaped him.
Sahil Sahni, 17, said his main essay responds to a prompt on the Common Application, an online portal to apply to hundreds of colleges: “Discuss an accomplishment, event or realisation that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
As he was writing, he said, he often jotted phrases on sticky notes when inspiration occurred. If no notepads were handy, he would ink a keyword on his arm “to stimulate the ideas.”
Sahni summarised the essay as a meditation on the consequences of lost keys, “how the unknown is okay, and how you can overcome it.” He said composing three or four essays also had a consequence: “Every day you learn something new about yourself.”