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I Can Tell You Now -- Their Essays Were Meh

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With the last of the college admission letters sent, this is the time juniors ask a pretty great question -- "What happened to this year's college applicants that can help me get ready to apply to college next year?"

In years past, I haven't been able to provide much of answer, other than "it depends." The only time an applicant knows where they stand compared to other applicants is after the admissions deadline has passed -- and they can't do anything to change their status by then.

This answer may be honest, but it doesn't give juniors much to go on. That's why I'm delighted that I have a different answer for them this year:

Don't write boring essays.

This is the second year in a row college admissions officers have told me that application essays, as a group, were pretty disappointing. They use phrases like "they're writing too safe" and "we appreciate the effort," but what they mean is clear; they were given celery when they were looking for steak. Yes, there were exceptions -- like the rep who told one of my students his essay was so wonderful, it brought him to tears -- but as a rule, there's room for improvement for next year's class.

And what can juniors do to write better essays? Three things:

Write the way you talk. Admissions officers ask for essays because they can't speak with you in person. They'd much rather do that, since it's easier to get more out of a conversation, where you can hear inflection, evaluate body language, and watch the way your eyes light up whenever you talk about Voltaire.

That's the kind of thing that gets a college's attention, so that's what you have to put in your essay. Colleges say they want to hear your voice, so be you -- your strongest, clearest, best, grammatically correct you, but you. Third graders recite the Pledge of Allegiance with little enthusiasm or understanding; if the final draft of a college essay sounds like a nine-year-old rotely advocating liberty and justice for all, it's time to start over.

Don't start too soon. I was stunned when Common Application released next year's essay topics this past February, benignly giving many juniors eleven months to work on draft after draft after draft -- and slowly taking the life out of the words, somewhere in the middle of July.

Students certainly need to write drafts of all essays, but there is such a thing as overkill. Think about your essay responses over the summer, but don't put anything to paper until the Common App portal opens August 1st. If you're an athlete in training during August, remember that you'll have to play your sport *and* go to class when you're in college; this is a good chance to practice doing both at once.

Show it to only one editor. Another way to have an essay lose your voice is to ask too many people for advice. You may only get a couple of suggestions from each reader, but two fixes from six readers makes twelve changes, all coming from someone else, all in words that aren't your own.

It's important to work well in a group, but not when it comes to application essays. Find one person who knows you and grammar, give them your essays ahead of time, and set up a time to discuss what you've written. Editing by conversation increases the chances your essay will sound like a conversation, and that's what colleges want. Find something to say; say it in your own voice; don't practice too much, and all will be well.