03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The College Insider: Admissions Freakout Countdown #5: The Application Essay - Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

I can't think of a gentle way to say this so I'll just be frank. No one - well, there might be an exception that proves the rule, but essentially no one - is going to accept a college applicant who writes like a dream about a topic no other applicant thought of if the kid's test scores, GPA, and course profile aren't competitive.

Your senior is at this point on the umptee-umpth draft of an essay that is supposed to make him or her stand above the crowd, but I am here to tell you, as both a writer and a parent, that you might as well deflect some of that energy into cleaning out the garage. Give it a good try, as defined by the /">New York Times, but please, don't precipitate an identity crisis.

Three reasons why:

1. I recall a public university representative confessing on a tour that the admissions people only read the full apps of seniors whose scores and GPAs were above a certain threshold. Below that line, essays worthy of fill in your favorite writer here went unread.

2. As many professional writers and lots of seniors will tell you, 500 words is a tough length; too long for glib, too short for substance.

3. The standard supportive advice is "be yourself" - but you are competing with applicants whose parents enhance "self" with the extracurricular equivalent of 'roids, everything from international community service to a networked internship for a child whose most remarkable trait may well be his parents' connections.

To make matters worse, the recession has hit college-counseling programs, if not colleges themselves. Fewer high school counselors have to manage more students applying to more colleges. Subjective elements like essays are going to get short shrift.

But old capitalists never die; they just relocate. Google "college essay advice" and you get over nine million sites. The first screen alone is full of web-based college counseling services offering assistance from an array of ex-college admissions officers and writers scrambling to survive the death of print media.

No, not offering, selling. A site called takes the relative high road, offering a mix of free advice and relatively reasonable essay-planning packages; if a family has no resources at school, $299 in the grand scheme of college costs can feel like a deal for suggestions from someone like John Reider, a former Stanford admissions officer who developed the site's curriculum. On the other hand, made me anxious, and our daughter's already a junior in college. You can't read about the '5 Fatal Flaws' to avoid in a college essay unless you purchase them, of course - and while you can cheap out at $250 per hour, the real deal is the packages of services that run from $840 into the thousands of dollars. So now you can worry not only about the essay itself but about the tactical edge wealthier or more profligate customers are getting.

At which point one might stop and ask: If the candidate requires so much remedial help to turn out a 500-word essay, what was he or she doing during English class all these years?
I know, I know, it's all about strategy. But before you hand over your credit card, be aware that the playing field is still riddled with potholes. I once heard a girl brag to her friends that she had lied in her essay, inflating an admirable but rather mundane accomplishment into a stratospherically impressive feat. And why not, she wondered aloud. It's not like anyone has the time to fact-check application essays

Never thought of that, did you? There's nothing you can do about the James Freys of the class of 2010, but you can have a couple of tips from me, absolutely free. They may seem insignificant at first, but they are the product of an adult life spent putting words on paper and web sites, and you'd be amazed at the difference they can make:

1. Never - ever - use the passive tense. It's not "The huts in Fiji were built by myself and four other volunteers." It's "I worked with four other volunteers to build six huts in Fiji."

2. Make sure your senior knows the difference between "it's," a contraction that means "it is," and "its", which is possessive, as in the dog ate its bone. Honest. Lots of them still don't.

3. One adjective per noun will probably do it.

That's it. Let me know how it turns out.

Next: Admissions Freakout Countdown #6: The College Tour; Up Close and Personal with the Competition.

Karen Stabiner's novel about college admissions, GETTING IN, will be published by Hyperion Books in March 2010. Write to her at