The Crabby Counselor Dispenses More Essay Advice

At readers’ request, Crabby doles out some more tips for college application essay writers.

You may not realize it, but many, many students are applying to college this fall. Many, many. And college admission people have to read all the essays you write. They do, too, if Crabby’s own experience is any indication. Thousands of them each year, in a very short time. Sometimes it may be at 11:30 pm with a Scotch and soda in hand after a long day of reading, but they do get read. If they’re at a college that asks for two essays plus some other kind of writing, it can get pretty hairy. But they do get read. Honest.

That being said, Crabby would like to clue you in on a few more things, keeping in mind that whether it’s a bright sunshiny day or a dark and stormy night, your essays will be read, so it pays to give your reader something to read. And remember one thing: No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be truly original; you can only be yourself.

So:

Write nothing about Legos or how you liked to take apart and put together the toaster when you were three. For that matter, nothing about how your precociousness led to your being who you are now or what you want to be in the future. That’s all been done to death and even though it may be new to you, it’s still boring and threadbare. Walk away from the shoebox diorama.

No lazy phrases or clichés like “For as long as I can remember…” or “It seems like only yesterday…” or “They said it couldn’t be done but…” Ugh.

If you built latrines in Guatemala last summer or similar, try to focus on the people you helped, not on what you discovered about yourself or your situation. Essays that end with “When I got back to the U.S. I realized how lucky I am,” only make you look like a privileged toff for whom other people are merely subsidiary cast members. If you insist on writing about your good deeds, your reader should hear something about the people you helped.

Presenting “childish innocence” as something to be emulated or re-acquired as an adult means you’ve forgotten that children are whirlwinds of egomania without the ability to reason. Keep it to yourself if you really think that. You’re going to college to grapple with complexity, not one-syllable words linked into doggerel. Faux-innocence is just faux. It makes readers feel like drooling in their oatmeal. Or your oatmeal.

If you must write about a family member as the person with the most influence on you, be sure it’s not a Disney-fied portrait of a kindly old man/woman uttering pithy wisdom to the apple-cheeked bairn on his/her knee. No one believes you, even if it’s true. It’s really better to choose someone, anyone, from outside your family. Cookie-baking, stern-but-kindly advice-dispensing grandparents simply aren’t credible these days when we know you’ve spent more time with electronic devices than humans.

Surely you’re beyond the point where you have to restate the question in the essay?

If you’re just learning how to construct an essay in order to apply to college, perhaps you should think about taking some time off first.

Learn that “I” is not necessarily the most important word in your essay. In fact, a reader can learn as much or more about you simply by seeing what you think is important enough to write about. Ironically, those who can write well about something besides themselves usually produce more readable essays.

You can be unique, but you can’t be original.

What does the word “essay” mean to you, anyway? Take it beyond the five-paragraph torture rack and see what you can come up with.

It’s always nice to read an essay that shows its writer to be somewhat well-read, either of the news or literature or science or just about anything that indicates you’re engaged in the process of educating yourself.

Don’t be cute.

You can, however, be self-deprecating if you like.

Answer the question asked.

Know the difference between lie/lay, their/they’re/there, two/too/to, lead/led, and so on. Personal pet peeve: The inability to know when to use the past participle as a modifier. (It’s supposed [not “suppose”] to be “iced” tea, not “ice” tea.) Without careful attention to the details, the whole structure can fall down. Oh yes, grammar matters. Crabby’s sorry you were never really taught it in school, but do your best.

Simple Anglo-Saxon words are fine; complex Latinate words are fine, too, just keep it simple. Crabby is aware he’s now showing off a bit. Ask your teacher what he means.

That’s all for now. More will certainly come up sooner or later. Cheers!

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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