THE BLOG
12/08/2014 08:37 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

College Applicants Should Seek Inspiration, Not Imitation, in Others' Essays

Imagine that you take an art student to the Hermitage and ask her to contemplate Femme au Café, painted by Picasso when he was the age of a college freshman. Tell her to draw inspiration from it and see what she comes up with.

I imagine two ideal outcomes. She might paint a stunningly precise replica that bespeaks tremendous technical skills. Or she'll be so moved by Picasso's virtuosity that she erupts with a wholly unique creation that signals the birth of a major talent. A student who is young and mortal, though, may more likely produce a distorted replica or succumb to utter paralysis. How do you follow Picasso's lead, exactly? (Here's another twist: What if you show her a forgery instead?)

Forbes.com writer George Anders overlooks this question from his recent glowing profile of Admitsee, a new site that invites college students to post their application essays and makes them available to prospective applicants. As Anders enthusiastically puts it, the service is designed to reveal what "thrills" admissions officers.

College essays baffle many students, partly because they entail a type of writing that many have never encountered in high school. Good guidance can be invaluable. It can come from writing manuals, teachers, and college counselors, and inspiration can come from many different sources -- including other people's writings. As Anders notes, some of these aids are less expensive than others.

(Before I direct students to any of these options, there's at least one low-cost service that I recommend: reading good books.)

Admitsee is probably endlessly enticing, of course, if only for its voyeuristic potential (the interface disturbingly recalls online dating -- what do headshots have to do with application advice?). Students who approach it for guidance, though, should so do carefully. The premise of Admitsee and of other resources that provide students with examples of college essays -- including the famous book of 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays (out of over 2000 students admitted annually) -- largely contradicts the mission of the college application process. Successful candidates are not those who follow others' leads. They are the ones who follow their own hearts.

Almost invariably, the strongest essays arise when students can identify their own virtues and devise effective, vivid ways of illustrating those virtues. This isn't easy -- to say the least! -- but I've yet to meet a student who didn't have a great story to tell. Topics can emerge from intense bouts of introspection (a topic I've written about before) or even from instant, ethereal inspiration. Sometimes, students have momentous life stories that make for obvious essay topics. Other times, applicants' virtues are subtle or couched in generic accomplishments. I'm thinking of, for example, the debater who writes about a single memorable debate round or the actor who writers about her favorites scene. Proper execution can require countless revisions.

Any student who reads an example and immediately says, "that kid is kind of like me, so I'll try the same thing" might write a competent essay. But he's forfeiting a tremendous opportunity for self-discovery. The crucial step, then, is to choose that memorable debate round, endure that bout of self-interrogation, or assign the right words to that life-changing experience -- those are things that someone else's essay can never do. Examples are not prescriptions.

The potential to inspire unthinking imitation is, though, one of the lesser dangers of Admitsee. The real trouble is, it ignores the readers who really matter.

An essay written by a Harvard student was, by definition, good enough to help a student get into Harvard, right? Well, sure. But brilliant essays are rare, even at highly selective colleges. Many essays are merely not bad enough to get the student rejected. Some essays might been awful, but maybe the student presented other virtues so tremendous that the admissions readers decided to ignore it entirely. Uninitiated visitors to Admitsee might not able to tell good from bad, just as you might not know at first glance that Picasso's pre-Cubist scrawl is a masterpiece if you're not familiar with the history of modern art.

That's why Anders' headline -- "Essays that Thrill Elite Schools" -- is disingenuous. Admissions readers are human. Only they know what "thrilled" them, and only they know whether a given elevated an application or weighted it down. Even then, an essay that "thrills" one reader might make another one suicidally bored.

(I recently heard a panelist from a highly selective school describe a somewhat risqué essay that he loved. Meanwhile, the applicant's college counselor had gotten a letter from an admissions offer at another school saying that the very same essay was off-putting and inappropriate.)

Anders draws an important, if limiting, conclusion from his perusal of Admitsee. He discovers that some of best essays have casual tones. "The answer, of course, is that mavericks often do best," writers Andres. "Seeing examples of peers who cut loose -- and got into a great school -- is the best way of conveying such a message." I agree. So do many others who have written on college essays (admissions officers frequently plead for students to write "naturally"). Great writers often write casually. They convey confidence even as they're being informal, they convey wisdom as they're being wry, and they convey sophisticated ideas simply.

Even so, students who aren't already strong writers can't necessarily pull off tone from reading a handful of essays, even good ones. They might not know what they're "cutting loose" from.

Should students seek inspiration from others? Of course they should. But they need to know what to do with it once they find it. The truly successful writers are those who put in the hard work and deep thought to figure out how to convey their best, most distinctive selves. That's what the young Pablo did with his painting, and look where it got him.