That's the case with the round of college fairs we've just wrapped up. Over the past month we've met hundreds of parents and students, talking not only about their college essays, but about the college-application process overall. What I found was a remarkable lack of awareness of all the intricacies involved.
Most of all, of course, we talked with students and their parents about their essays. And I wasn't surprised that even into late October, so many seniors hadn't yet done serious work on their essays. Will these students get their essays done? Of course. Even if they only complete just the Common App and one of its its five prompts, and do nothing for any of their top-choice schools or others, they'll get done.
But how good will they be? And how close will they come to achieving the real objective of a college essay?
What is that objective? Funny you should ask . . . . because of plenty of the seniors we spoke with at the college fairs couldn't really answer that question. They couldn't tell me that your essay is the one element of the application that gives an admissions officer a picture of you as an individual, not simply someone who took AP Biology or IB Human Geography.
So many students are applying to colleges today, and high school students are achieving at levels so much higher that just a few years ago, that it's paramount to have something that sets you apart. Students -- and their parents, too -- seemed shocked when I told them the simple truth: Competition is tough. If you're putting your 3.8 high school GPA on an application, you can count on the fact that plenty of other students are applying to the same university with the same 3.8, with the same SAT score and with just as many extracurriculars and community-service hours.
Your essay is what separates you from the crowd and tells the university why they should want you.
Still -- just as gratifying as the oblivion of some families was shocking -- was the presence of so many juniors and even sophomores and freshmen at the college fairs. They're doing the right thing by realizing it's not too early to learn the ins and outs of applying to college as well as chatting with representatives of colleges and universities they're interested in.
In particular, I spent lots of time talking with juniors. I gave them and their parents two pieces of advice that are critically important at this stage of the process. First, spend time now reading successful essays. Many more universities are posting their best essays online for future applicants to read. I don't suggest you do what these students did, either in their style or their content.
A great example is Johns Hopkins University, where you can read four years worth of "Essays That Worked."
But before you launch into you own essay, it's beneficial to see the wide array of ways others have approached the task.
And for high school juniors, my most important advice was to start early on their essays. Use the summer before your senior year. Of course, I'm not suggesting spending every waking hour at the computer, but if you wait until senior years starts in August, your head will be packed with so many distractions, and the life of a senior will take up so much of your time, you will have lost the best possible writing environment,
College-fair season always is a huge learning experience for me. This fall I know I was able to pass along a lot of essay wisdom to everyone who stopped to chat with us at The Center for Essay Excellence.
It's not always procrastination that leaves a high school senior looking at a blank screen as the days tick off into November. Plenty of seniors face writer's block when it comes to their college essays.
Unfortunately, friends, parents -- even teachers and counselors -- offer only cliches in their effort to help, according to independent college adviser Lee Bierer. Some of the lame tips they offer up, she says, include "Relax" and “Instead of seeing the essay as a challenge, look at it as an opportunity to share your innermost thoughts.”
Neither one is likely to help much. But Bierer, writing in the Charlotte Observer, offers some much-more-practical pointers for unlocking writer's block. Here's a sampling:
- "Do something else creative. Cook, draw, paint, sing, play music. The hope is that by engaging in another creative activity your mind will open up and be less judgmental."
- "Do something physical. Get centered with yoga, run, take a Zumba class. Take deep breaths and approach the assignment with more positive thoughts."
- "Talk it out. Pick someone who knows you really well. . . . Have them ask you questions that would help someone else get to know you better. Ask them to get you talking about some life experiences you’ve had and what you’ve learned."
- "Think small. Colleges don’t expect you to have saved the world from Ebola. They’re just trying to learn what you care about and whether you’ll be a good fit for their campus."
Dump the essay? That's what Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology is considering.
James A. Goecker, vice president of enrollment management at the Terre Haute, Ind., college, believes a psychological test called "the locus of control" can be more telling than a 650-word essay because "it tells us more about success in college, which to me is more important than which book I'd take to a desert island and why," Goecker told the Lafayette (Ind.) Journal & Courier.
"It's time for us to objectively take a step back," Goecker said, "and say, 'Is this really the best we can do?' "
Arnie Rosenberg is the founder of The Center for Essay Excellence. He writes regularly about college essays and their importance to the college-admission process. Contact him at Arnie.Rosenberg.Editor@gmail.com.