College Essays 101
Read Spencer’s Second Version
In September, Spencer worked on his essay in English class; his teacher gave him feedback and support, and her approval to submit it to colleges.
You’ll read the first two paragraphs of this version.
Read the first sentence.
What do you think? What are your first impressions of this sentence?
How does it compare to the original version?
What do you think of the writing?
What kind of person might Spencer be?
If you were an admissions officer, what would you think?
Read the second sentence.
What do you think about this sentence?
What advice did Spencer’s English teacher give him?
How do you think a college admissions officer will react to this?
Read the first paragraph.
What do you think about the language? Any words or phrases stand out?
What is Spencer trying to accomplish in this paragraph?
What does Spencer think of himself?
What do you think or feel about Spencer? What kind of person is he? (Look closely at the sentences to see what he says about himself.)
Spencer says he’s confident and a leader. Do you believe him?
Read the second paragraph.
That summer, I graduated from camper to Counselor in Training (CIT). Having been returning to the camp for seven years, it was a spectacular feeling. However I soon realized that CIT was not a position with much prestige, and I generally had the most menial or unwanted tasks. In my first week, my task was Darius, an eleven year old camper. Darius was the archetypical nightmare child: He would constantly run away, yell at others, and harass the wildlife whenever possible. Halfway through the week, he left our group to urinate in a girl’s cabin. Upon realizing he would be reprimand, he escaped to the woods, leaving the other counselors and myself to conduct a five hour search after cleaning the cabin. I could speak for hours about the state of mental depravity that week left me in, and after the first few days I couldn’t do more than simply chastise him when he fell out of line. Now that I’ve had time to reflect, I realize that was probably how most people in his life dealt with him. Regardless, when it was time to say goodbye I was ecstatic. However just before he boarded the bus, he paused and said “Spencer, thank you for this week. I had so much fun.” Despite his antics, it meant a lot to me that a camper had benefited as a result of my counseling. It was my first moment of vindication as a counselor, and it felt phenomenal.
How’s Spencer doing now? What do you think of him?
Who does the essay seem to be about?
What do you think a college admissions officer would think about Spencer?
We won’t ask you to read the third paragraph.
Read the common reactions.
We’ve led this workshop to thousands of people, and almost everyone has thought Spencer is a jerk. Spencer himself was embarrassed by this essay.
Issues people have with this essay include:
He uses words incorrectly.
His opening paragraph is scattered, with no clear point.
He talks about himself like he’s a gift to the universe (try reading this in a pompous tone of voice: were I not able to be confident in myself, I wouldn’t have the ambition or self-accountability I have today. Summer camp gave me that ability, and yet I had always taken that gift for granted.)
The second paragraph is all about Darius, not Spencer.
In the second paragraph he seems to think he’s too good to work with Darius.
He doesn’t do a good job with Darius, and is unkind and unsympathetic.
He feels victory (vindication) for having done a terrible job.
He doesn’t sound like a teenager.
A student in one of our workshops summed it up: there’s a difference between being a nice guy with a sophisticated vocabulary, and being a jerk with a thesaurus.
The Roommate Test
If this were all you knew about Spencer, and you learned that he (or she) would be your roommate, would you give a:
- thumbs up, excited about your new roomie?
- thumbs sideways, need to wait and see?
- thumbs down, you do not want this person as your roommate?
In our live workshops, 99.5% of people give Spencer a thumbs down. Every now and then someone thinks he can’t possibly be that bad and is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Spencer needed to know his audience and intention.
Instead, she got a kid trying hard to sell himself, and coming off as a jerk in the process. These 500 words will not impress her.
His intention for his essay was all wrong.
Spencer’s intention for this version was to prove something about himself—almost like he’d prove a point in an English paper. That’s why he included evidence to prove that he’s a confident leader (he’s the student body president) and fancy words to prove…well, that he can use a thesaurus?
If Spencer writes an engaging, authentic short story that shows who he is (and it’s reasonably well-written), his college essay will be in the top 10%.
This quintessential trainwreck of an essay ain’t it!
You're ready to move on when
- You’ve read the first two paragraphs of Spencer’s second version.
- You’ve asked and answered the questions.
- You’ve read the common reactions to the essay and taken the roommate test.
- You’ve read about his audience and intention.