Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Essay Writers: Thanks for the Memories!

The end of the school year is bittersweet. Each year, I say goodbye to many wonderful students, some of whom first came to me when they were in middle school. By the time they graduate, these students have gained not only size and maturity but also a sense of perspective that will take them far in life. They know that they’ve survived the rigors of high school and have the skills to thrive during their college years. As I tell their parents, anything that I teach these students is more than paid back by what they have taught me.

What stood out about the members of the Class of 2011 was their essay writing. This year, I had a bumper crop of original essays. I loved the topics. One student equated his approach to problem solving to that of a method for analyzing baseball using in-game statistics. (What did I say about learning from my students?) One of my students’ essays was so wonderful that I submitted it to college expert Bruce Hammond, and I’m thrilled to say that it will appear in the next edition of Fiske Real College Essays That Work. Each time I read that essay – it’s about old movies – I felt as if I were on a journey.

A common theme for student authors was misconceptions. A young lady wrote about the contrast between her tiny handwriting and her real-life self. A student athlete wrote how his imposing size is not an indicator of his values and intelligence. A budding engineer with impeccable test scores decided to focus on erroneous perceptions people had of him for a variety of reasons, from living in Kansas to being an only child. As I said to all of these students, “Only you could write that essay!” Thanks for having me along for the ride.

Note to applicants: Up until now, the Common App placed no word limit on the Personal Essay. However, for 2011-2012, the organization is asking applicants to write 250-500 words. When announcing the change, Rob Killion, director of the Common Application, explained that essays with no word limit proved “far too long, less well-written . . . often skimmed rather than read by admissions officers.” I understand that admissions officers are overwhelmed with record-high volumes of applicants. However, many of my students found that they could readily write about 700 words once they found a topic that was truly their own. For some students, the new rule may present an editing challenge; for others, it will be a relief. By the way, the Common App had a 500-word cap on its essay for over 30 years – long before automated word and character counts became commonplace. (To see the 2011-2012 Common App, click here.)

Another note: Many times, students are tempted to write about serious topics such as overcoming an illness, compensating for a learning disability or dealing with a death in the family. I usually do not recommend that students focus on these topics in the Personal Essay. However, certain cases warrant an explanation, so the Common App tells students, “Please attach a separate sheet if you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application.” That is the place to elaborate on extraordinary circumstances.

I’m writing this blog on the day of the Summer Solstice. We all know that summer is a great time to get fit, spend some quality family time and clean up the clutter. However, I strongly encourage rising seniors to, at a minimum, come up with a list of possible Personal Essay topics, and try to draft the essay by August. After all, the start of school isn’t too far away.