Wintergreen Orchard House will soon be releasing a new book by Elizabeth A. Stone, Ph.D., titled The Better College Essay: Fitting In and Standing Out. Dozens of books about college application essays have been written for students, but few have been geared specifically toward the counselors and consultants, teachers, parents, and other mentors who help guide them through the writing process. Following is an excerpt from the first chapter of The Better College Essay.
In season three of the award-winning comedy Modern Family, Haley Dunphy has to write her college essay. Frustrated by her upper-middle class life of privilege, beautiful home in Southern California, good health, beauty, and loving parents, Haley blames her mother, Claire, for not providing her with fodder for an essay about overcoming adversity. In frustration, Claire tricks Haley into the car for a drive in the mountains, dumps her on the side of the road, and leaves her there to find her way home without a cell phone or any money. Claire believed this would give Haley the “stuff” with which to write the winning college essay. Too bad Claire didn’t have this book to guide Haley toward a Better Essay. She could have used this opportunity to have a conversation with Haley—to sit down and take stock of Haley’s teenage years and help her develop an essay that was original and authentic. Claire would have learned a lot more about Haley, and perhaps Haley would have learned more about herself. Ultimately, Haley would have gotten into the college of her choice—in the television show, Haley didn’t initially receive a single letter of admission. Finally, after being wait-listed, Haley briefly attended a college and was thrown out for poor conduct and failing grades.
In the real world, Haley’s angst over the essay, the ensuing battle with her mother, and the heightened tension in the household are actually a fairly accurate portrayal of what a lot of families experience when they enter the world of college admission. Hopefully, most parents don’t turn to extreme measures such as dropping their child off in the wilderness just to make a point. But nonetheless, parents and students remain hopelessly confused about what the essay is all about, and parents may feel helpless in guiding their student. Without guidance from a trained mentor, counselor, teacher, or parent, the student may work hours on an essay that “misses the point,” is full of clichés they think a college wants to hear, or just simply is not very interesting. There is a better way.
What is the college essay and why is it so important?
The number of students graduating from public high school in this country has never been higher. The National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 80% of students across the country in 2012 earned a diploma within four years of starting high school—the highest percentage of high school graduates in the past 40 years. The biggest gains in high school graduation were among Hispanic and African-American students. More students are college eligible, and the availability of financial aid for low-income families, along with aggressive programs to attract first-generation college students and international students, has made college accessible for hundreds of thousands more students than ever before.
With increased competition for spots, colleges have used numerous devices to choose from the plethora of students clamoring to get in. The current list of colleges who are members of the Common Application exceeds 500, and they all share a single application portal. The Common Application requires students to write an essay based on one of five prompts. Other colleges, both private and public, who do not use the Common Application may ask for two essays equaling a minimum of 750 words (the University of California, for example), or offer an array of long and short essay choices. Common Application colleges often ask for “supplement” essays that can range from 150 to 1,000 words. The general essays usually offer broad topic choices, while the supplement essays often focus on the student explaining more specifically how they are a good fit for that particular college or specialized program, allowing the member colleges to obtain additional information that specifically addresses a student’s interest in the college.
The essay is important for several reasons
Colleges use student essays to make inferences about students. Because colleges have to make assumptions about which students will thrive on their campus and make their alma mater proud, the essay is a way for colleges to infer the personality of the students they seek to admit.
The ease of applying online and the demise of the paper application has simplified the college admission process so that students can apply to multiple colleges with relative ease. Coupled with the competition to get into college, students are caught in a catch-22. More students applying to more colleges brings the admission acceptance rates down lower and lower, so students panic and keep sending in more applications. It is no longer uncommon for students to apply to more than 15 colleges. How then does a college know which of those schools a student really wants to attend? There really is no system that allows students to prioritize their interest and commitment, with the exception of binding Early Decision or Single Choice Restrictive Early Action plans.
This is where both fitting in and standing out enter the picture
The college essay reminds me of a book I bought when I was pregnant. It had a list of baby names that assured the parents the name of choice would both “fit in and stand out.” What exactly did that mean? It was a list of names that were distinctive, yet not so unusual or unpronounceable that your child would forever hate you. Fitting in and standing out is the goal of the college essay. The essay must stand out among thousands to admission officers. It must be original, insightful, and tell a new story they have not heard hundreds of times before. It needs to be clearly written, given an admission officer may only have a few minutes to read an entire essay. But the essay also must tell the college that this student will “fit”—that the student’s ambitions and academic strengths will be a good match for the college. Haley Dunphy, as it turned out, wasn’t a good fit, and who knows whether a Better Essay would have helped the college predict her success. For the sake of faith in the fairness of college admission, The Better College Essay will outline the process for adults to be collaborators with students, guiding them to writing the very best essay they can—one that will stand out, fit in, and ultimately lead the student to a successful college experience.
The Better College Essay will be available in July 2014.
Elizabeth A. Stone, Ph.D., currently she teaches in the Certificate Program in College Admissions and Career Planning at the University of California, Berkeley Extension. She is also Executive Director at Campanile College Counseling, where she mentors U.S. and international students of all abilities through the college admission process. She lives in San Mateo, California.