That's the question raised by New York Times Op-ed columnist Frank Bruni, who suggests that college essays today have entered the realm of "oversharing."
"When it comes to college admissions, our society has tumbled way, way too far down the rabbit hole," Bruni wrote in in his column Sunday. "And in the warped wonderland where we’ve landed, too many kids attach such a crazy degree of importance to getting into the most selective schools that they do stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out. The essay portion of their applications can be an especially jolting illustration of that."
Bruni cites examples -- shocking ones, actually -- offered by Michael Motto, a former Yale admissions officer. And he quotes Sally Rubenstone, one of the authors of the “Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions,” who calls this oversharing by students, this trendy tendency "to tug readers into the most intimate corners of their lives and to use unfiltered frankness as a way to grab attention, the Jerry Springer-ization of the college-admissions essay.”
I agree with other experts in the admissions-counseling field, quoted in Bruni's column: As you begin thinking about -- and writing -- your college essays, stay away from "excessively and awkwardly naked testimonials."
“Admissions officers pay as much attention to students’ choice of essay topic as they do to the details in their essays,” Motto, the former Yale admissions officer, said.
Your voice -- not the voice of your parents, your guidance counselors or your English teachers -- is the most important quality of your essay. The success of your essay, as well, hinges on your own ideas and no one else's.
But don't go overboard trying to make your essay stand out. Shock value isn't likely to get you anywhere, especially not into the college of your choice. Opening a window on your real self will.
"Runaway candor and uncensored revelation," as Bruni puts it, won't get the job done.
There's a single impediment to teenagers writing their college-admission essays: Most have never before written a personal narrative, according to Chelsea Averitt, a former English-literature teacher.
"Writing in an unfamiliar genre inspires bad writing," Averitt writes in the "Hacking Education" blog in the Bangor (Maine) Daily News. "When we don’t know what to write, we turn to generalities, commonplaces and banalities."
She offers three strategies to get ready to write your essay:
1. Be active and involved: "It’s especially important for college-admission essays because the Common Application essay questions ask about activities teenagers have been involved with . . . Students who are active in their schools and communities are more likely to have interesting stories that fit into such narrative categories."
2. Model the examined life: "Writing a personal essay should be an activity of walking your reader through your thought process, of helping that reader to see why you believe what you believe."
3. Learn the larger context: "Reading essays can help (you) more clearly articulate (your) own positions because it helps . . . to see what others have already said and what makes (your) own approach unique."
You surely haven't forgotten Apple's catch phrase from the early days of the iPhone: "There's an app for that." Turns out the slogan works for writing college essays, too, according to Suzanne Shaffer.
Shaffer -- writing on her blog, Parents Countdown to College Coach -- lists seven apps to investigate for college essay help: Essay Czar, EssayEdge, Essay Starter, Essay Writing Guide, iAWriter, Paper Helper and Essay Planner.
Check them out out.
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.
© 2014 The Center for Essay Excellence