Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Standing by the "Depressing" (but Real) College Essay

I am in the throes of College Application Essay madness right now (I help dozens of students each year find an essay subject that is both unusual and intelligent, and I give them writing style and craft tips to make their essay memorable), and as always, I learn as much from the process as my students do.

Once a year, maybe twice, there is a Fabulous College Candidate I am asked to help. You know the type: perfect grades, prodigious talent, etc., etc.

The job, should I choose to accept it, is to “get this perfect candidate into Harvard.”

Well. I can’t get anyone into Harvard; students get themselves into Harvard. But I can steer these candidates in the right direction. I can offer tweaks and suggestions, particularly on the essay, and be the student’s advocate.

UPDATE, 12/2014:  Two more students of mine got into Harvard!

The other year, I had to fight tooth and nail to protect a student’s college essay. This essay was amazing (trust me as I tell but don't show). The student had worked for months on it. Without giving too much away, I will say that the essay was about visiting the middle East, and playing cricket on a front lawn with family while suicide bombs went off. Vividly written; lots of description; serious, mature themes.

“Too dark! Depressing!” someone said about this essay (then it was suggested that the student write a nice, safe essay about volleyball, instead).

No way in hell; I stand by this essay. It’s real, and it’s unlike anything else, I countered. The arguing went on for weeks; I told my student to ignore it. Wisely, she did.

The student used her "depressing" essay and got into Harvard. Early admission.

Because virtually every Harvard student has the same credentials (perfect grades, perfect or near-perfect SATs, top ranking, class valedictorian, and so on), sometimes it does come down to the essay. The decision to admit or reject can hinge on the seemingly smallest detail—and often, it has to do with what the admissions committee can see is different about a candidate. What life experience does the candidate have that will add to the campus community?

Remember, I often tell my students, it’s not about what Harvard (or any college) can do for you; it’s really about what you can do for Harvard. How will you make Harvard proud? Show me. Show them.


  1. That is really great advice. I would suggest also, that in preparation for writing serious essays on the college level, the student should spend some time each day in writing -- whether humor, serious, and so forth. And, importantly, re-write what she or he wrote to polish it up. It's self-defeating to see one's words as if they were written in stone.

  2. Definitely--writing this essay should be done in bits and pieces and over the long haul. Nothing good comes from the first (or even second) draft. So it's not just about the topic of the essay, it's about the painstaking revision. Best, Elizabeth

  3. I guess you're saying that you should write a college application that is worth spending time reading it.

  4. Yes--and this essay has to say something new that is not on another part of your application to the college...

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