- DC1 spent some time listening to Yale admissions podcasts about what not to do in personal essays and went to a Pomona webinar that directly contradicted everything the Yale people said. What’s in right now (but not at Yale) are essays that start with hooks. Like the Pomona example of an excellent essay started something like: “Watermelon. I wasn’t to know that day that the pink-red and green fruit was going to change my life forever.”
- DC1, DC2, and I had a great time coming up with ridiculous sounding hooks. ‘”How did I get into college at all without an essay hook,” my mother wondered.’ or ‘”Perhaps this is why I didn’t get into Williams!” my mother gasped while reading advice on essay hooks.’ DC2’s suggestions were more off the wall and had a fish theme.
- Eventually we gave up trying to help DC1 brainstorm and hired someone from Outschool to help brainstorm. It seemed to be less painful for DC1.
- I am of two minds about this– on the one hand, I never thought I would be one of those people who paid someone to help with college admissions. I am a big believer in finding a good match for a school and DC1 is in a range where a good essay will help some places but a mediocre essay won’t kill hir chances. It’s possible there’s some amazing essay that would make hir a shoe-in, but being honest, all hir life experiences are privileged White upper-middle class (but not like, directed a movie as a teenager kind of privileged like one of Angelina Jolie’s kids) and are mildly interesting. On the other hand, she just seems to be doing the whole brainstorming thing we were doing before but with more knowledge about when an idea isn’t great (only she says it positively, DC1 notes) and without the feeling of pulling teeth. Zie got more done in a half hour session with her in terms of just putting ideas out there than zie did in half a day with DH and me tag teaming. (Although it did help that DC1 had done some of the exercises with us before– they’re commonly suggested on the internet/in how to write college essay books.)
- It’s not even the writing that DC1 is having problems with. DC1 just has a really hard time choosing or having opinions. (This is a common theme with DC1– hir only big opinion is that we should always have sushi for meals, and never have raw tomatoes, but also zie would rather have me pick which sushi.) For the questions that are very specific for the State School application that zie has already turned in, zie didn’t really have that much trouble. But this whole “you can write anything for the common app” is just too much. Especially since hir first idea would be identical to HMC’s new essay prompt. (This is the, “I know what I want my career path to be” style essay.)
- After one session, DC1 had a much better idea for the HMC prompt that zie had already made good progress on, but was still stymied on the common app essay. So DC1 asked for more sessions. Which we will pay $50/30 min for once a week until DC1 feels comfortable with hir essays. I feel #richpeopleguilt about this, but also I’m hoping it will save everybody’s time and my frustration.
- The even richer economists I know hired actual people not from outschool to give full service college navigation. So… we’re not really there yet. (DC1 didn’t even do SAT coaching because I assumed zie wouldn’t need it, which zie didn’t. Though zie did take some practice PSAT/SATs from previous years and brushed up on forgotten math based on those.)
- It’s crazy to me how much DC1 hates introspection because when I was that age, if the internet had been more developed, I would so have had an angsty live-journal page. (Actually I probably wouldn’t have because I was already super leery of aol chat and IRC– my roommate (not #2) hung out on channels that seemed to be mostly gross people looking for under-aged girls to sext. So I was pretty leery even then.)
- Though to be fair, my common app essay wasn’t particularly introspective– it was about how implicit discrimination by K-12 teachers hurt girls and Black kids and how insisting that the teacher use a quantitative measure for my 4th grade math-pullout sessions (we had Wednesdays off to volunteer or do internships at my boarding school) added really smart Black and Hispanic girls to my group, and it was heartbreaking how they’d been overlooked before. And I wanted to study education and put in systemic changes to help kids like these girls. In retrospect, probably too white-savior (but I was only 17! I can cut myself some slack!), but I did get into a top SLAC, even if it wasn’t Williams.
- My sister’s common app essay was amazing. It was about how physics informed her dancing and vice versa. She’s still mad at me for her not applying to Stanford even though I suggested she do so. She said that I was too negative about her chances because I’d seen so many top people not get in and told her it was all random after a certain level. (Again, I was like 22, what did I know? But I still stand by the, “it’s random after a certain point.” But even if I was wrong, she shouldn’t still be holding a grudge about it.) Still she got into lots of amazing schools (all of the ones she applied to, including an Ivy) and loved her college experience, so …
September 21, 2022 at 6:27 am
The essay prompt about watermelon sounds as if the college wants to attract students who will go on to become screenwriters. That kind of prompt discriminates against students who are more literal-minded, and who don’t put themselves at the center of every experience.
I smiled at your description of how you wrote an essay on your plans to reform the educational system. My daughter wrote one on how evil it is to discriminate against gay people.
September 21, 2022 at 6:51 am
It wasn’t a prompt, just an example they gave of an “excellent common app essay.” Though my undergrad does graduate a lot of people who work in entertainment.
The whole college app essay thing requires introspection and self-centeredness. Some schools moreso than others.
September 21, 2022 at 8:31 am
I have no memory of my essays, just of being profoundly annoyed with my mother throughout the entire college application process. I did not want her engaging with it at all and she (reasonably, in retrospect) wanted to have some oversight. If she could have handed off any part of her role to someone else, it would have been a gift to our relationship. I was better at being told things by/learning things from people who weren’t my mom at that time– more open to it, less aggravated, and a better attitude all around.
September 21, 2022 at 8:44 am
My mom was like, here’s a Fiske guide, go for it. Though I’m sure she proofread my essays for grammar. DH’s mom did pretty much everything for DH, except actually writing any essays, including choosing what schools to apply to.
I helped a number of people with college apps who all got into really stellar schools, but my sister is mad that I didn’t encourage her *enough* about applying to Stanford and I feel so much guilt about all the people I helped to get into Caltech who then went. I do think I know the trick for getting into Caltech, but also nobody I helped had good outcomes from going there. But also, what does a 18-22 year old actually know about anything? I shouldn’t be too hard on myself, maybe?
September 21, 2022 at 1:28 pm
You shouldn’t be hard on yourself because it wasn’t your responsibility to encourage your sister enough to apply to Stanford. That life choice was your sisters, and for her to live with.
September 21, 2022 at 1:37 pm
To be fair, I *did* encourage her to apply to Stanford. Particularly after she got her entire app together and it looked good (her hook was about how she used to destroy my toys and everything I loved as a toddler to see how they worked). And she might not have gotten in, because it really is random once you cross a bar at the ivies/Stanford!
September 21, 2022 at 1:29 pm
And conversely, if everyone had bad experiences at CalTech, that’s on CalTech.
September 21, 2022 at 1:33 pm
Heh, thanks! And you’re right, but also I seemed so confident. And also, *I* got into Caltech and rightly decided not to go!
September 21, 2022 at 9:18 am
I find it fascinating (and intimidating as I think about my own kids applying to college one day) how different my experience applying to college was compared to yours and DC1s (I graduated from HS/ started college in 2000).
No one in my family or at my high school ever raised the possibility of applying to or going to any school out of our state (FL). A big part of this is because of the Bright Futures scholarship, which covered 100% of my tuition plus a book stipend. That’s a hard deal to pass up.
I applied to UF with a hand-written paper application. No essay was required. It was the only school I applied to or considered. In retrospect, I might have been capable of getting into a more prestigious school – I had very good grades, a very good SAT score and I was in all-state orchestra – but it literally never occurred to me that elite or Ivy League schools would accept a kid like me (meaning the daughter of a nurse and a maintenance man from in Orlando as opposed to – say – the daughter of a pair of lawyers from Washington DC). And maybe they wouldn’t have. Who knows?
It does make me want my own kids to know that they have more options than I ever thought I did, but it brings back old insecurities that “we’re not the kind of people who go to fancy schools.” Fortunately, the kid who I think might have the chance to go to a more prestigious college, is only 7.
September 21, 2022 at 10:05 am
The people I tutored for in college didn’t have to write essays to get into state school either. It’s a little crazy to me that DC1 has had to write 4 and there’s another one for an honors program that zie hasn’t written yet.
I really did think I’d end up at Grinnell or Macalester or Carleton, which are great liberal arts schools but really have a local reputation to the Midwest, or at least did when I was 18.
Harvard didn’t accept our friend who was the state math champion with perfect grades and perfect SATs. Because there are 50 state math champions and they couldn’t accept them all. It is very random once you’ve passed a certain bar.
Many of our friends who went to the state flagship are in the top 1% or higher of income, just like the ones who went to Stanford. You can get into a top 5 grad program from a state flagship. State flagships are a really good deal.
September 21, 2022 at 11:57 am
I will have to go back and ask Eldest about his essay. He only applied to state flagship and neighboring state flagship (where we’d have had tuition reciprocity), got into both, and went to our state flagship (where I work). He had a perfect GPA and very high ACT scores, but didn’t want to try any private schools. In any case, his essay, IIRC, was very much like him. He’s a laid-back, mellow kid, and I think the essay conveyed that. He spoke of the high-school experiences that pushed him toward the science+music double major he wanted (e.g., he had state-level accolades in music), and he talked a bit why he wanted to go to a given school. The essay was nice, and sounded like him, but hardly broke new literary ground. Or ripe watermelons.
September 21, 2022 at 12:26 pm
yeah, DC1’s essay on a challenge was about the challenge of remembering to actually turn in completed work and not just leave it stuffed into hir backpack (also the reason for the imperfect GPA, though zie didn’t state that), and learning organization more generally as a high school freshman. No watermelon involved.
Good enough for the state school where zie is going to get in anyway, but maybe not exciting enough for the common app. Though I do like the one zie is currently writing on career plans for HMC, which may end up becoming the common app essay after the HMC application is turned in.
September 21, 2022 at 12:09 pm
This is both intimidating and enlightening.
Having never written a college essay, I went to a state school, I think having an Outschool or other informed person to help with the prompts that is NOT you sounds like a real sanity saver. I don’t think JB and I will work well together on that when the time comes, especially given our track record with their other homework.
Like Alice, I think it will be a gift for our relationship to rely on someone else for some of those things that I am not as well equipped to provide.
I don’t think it’s fair for your sister to *still* be mad at you about Stanford. She did well since college and is happy now, right? And how much do any of us really know between 17-23ish? I know I THOUGHT I knew a lot but really, I knew not a whole lot. You did what you knew “best” at that long ago age, which was a lot less than any of us know not. As example, your thing about Caltech!
I often wonder about how different my life would be if I had actually mustered the courage to try harder for what I thought I wanted, you know that, but I am coming to the point of accepting that I am happy with the life that I have now, and it couldn’t have happened this way if I had taken a different path out of high school. That’s ok.
September 21, 2022 at 12:35 pm
She went to a regional ivy (think Vanderbilt/Duke, but not in the South) with an excellent and supportive engineering school and did great. She was on Poms (dance squad cheerleading but different from actual cheerleading) and solar car team. She made life-long friends. She is active in alumni recruiting and wears branded clothing from them. She has a picture with Barack Obama.
She makes more money than I do by quite a bit and is currently working on helping to save the planet (though to be fair, her previous position involved destroying the planet, though she would argue that she was destroying it less through making things safer and more efficient).
Her life is good!
At least I did keep her from going to our state flagship because every single woman and minority I know who went there for engineering dropped out. (Excellent social sciences, cut-throat and racist/misogynist engineering.) So my actually helpful advice to her to see which schools had large percentages of women engineers as graduating seniors (not just entering freshmen) was really good.
September 21, 2022 at 1:25 pm
Having read many college essays, I have to say that essays that start with compelling hooks only work if executed flawlessly. The first line is only a good hook if the rest of the essay delivers. It’s incredibly difficult to do flawlessly, especially for the average affluent white kid. I kinda feel like the hook is trying to replicate what some kids naturally have because of their (challenging) lived experiences, and when an affluent white person whose life challenges have been fairly simple (relatively speaking) tries to use it and doesn’t have a good supporting story behind it, the hook comes off as gimmicky and annoying. Or even potentially offensive, depending on the story used. It can be far better to avoid the hook than do the hook wrong.
And on a personal note of pride, I’m really fucking good at writing these kinds of essays. The year I applied to college, my school published excerpts from applications in the alumni magazine and my essay was the one essay selected to be published in its entirety. Another admissions officer from a top-5 SLAC said it was the best essay she read that admission season. It was not about being black or being raised in a large family or being poor or being raised Mormon in the south or my experience being a scholarship kid at a fancy private school or any obvious topic. I wrote about an random obituary I cam across in the newspaper of a perfectly ordinary, not famous lady who loved birdwatching. So a hooky type essay with a compelling opener. And yet when I re-read it now – cause yes, I still have a copy of it – it’s also super cringeworthy and overwritten. But it’s kinda how you know it was written by an 17-year old. But my law school application – those essays were chef kiss good. The Dean of Admissions wrote a note on my acceptance letter saying it was a perfect application.
September 21, 2022 at 1:41 pm
That’s pretty awesome!
I must have done a good job on my graduate school essays. But nobody told me they were perfect.
September 21, 2022 at 5:21 pm
Wow y’all – I have absolutely no memory of what I wrote to get in to college or grad school. I only applied to local schools for undergrad, but one was a fairly selective private school, so I assume some sort of essay was involved.
My oldest is a junior this year – not sure I want to stress them out by having them practice essays this early. But I guess we need to get started pretty soon. They will probably end up going to the state flagship where I teach, but I’d like them to consider a few other options. Which I guess we also need to visit. Hmmm. I’m a HUGE proponent of getting undergrad degrees from a strong state school and then shooting for the moon for grad school admissions. Places like Caltech or MIT are tough as an undergrad, but fantastic for grad school!
Also – are kids these days still taking the SAT/ACT? (Yes, I’m in a state that pushes the ACT – grrr.) I thought most schools no longer required them and some were not allowing them. My oldest is a crack test taker, so I’m sure they’d do well, but it seems like such a waste of time.
September 21, 2022 at 5:28 pm
I only remember the one common app easy and the prompt that made me not apply to Amherst because I didn’t want to write the essay.
Most schools don’t require the SAT/ACT this year. DC1 is national merit though, so I’m glad zie took it and the PSAT. Zie got a 1580 on hir first official try so is only taking the SAT once.
September 22, 2022 at 4:44 am
I remember writing something about being the kid who grew up too soon because I had to do a lot for my parents due to the language barrier. My grades and class rank were great but not perfect. My sats were average but I still got into many top schools. (But not BC for some reason). I didn’t apply to any ivys. In hindsight, I don’t know why. They seemed so out of reach, so I didn’t even bother trying.
I did hire a writing coach for my son this summer and it was good money spent. His essay weaves 3 topics together, fixing up houses, rowing and dungeons and dragons. The theme that weaves through it is about building and creating. I wanted him to write about living with grandma and the stuff he learned from someone who grew up the way she did but he had 0 interest in that. She is my hero but definitely not his. His first idea was to write about the physics of rowing which I thought sounded way too entitled. I’m hoping the tinkering part of his story shows that he’s okay getting his hands dirty. I don’t want him to come off looking like an 80s villain. I need to trust the process and his humanities professors did say it was good. So, in hindsight, the tutor did help a lot and took my concerns into account and then I stayed out of it.
Our school is migrating the systems they store transcripts on right now and are “hoping to be done by Oct 1” which has me very concerned. Like why didn’t they do this over the summer? Oh and we lost 2 principals and one vice principal to 2 different scandals too, so we lost the second one one week into school starting. So I am a little stressed over the process.
September 22, 2022 at 5:35 am
Physics of dance worked very well for my sister, though in the context of why mechanical engineering.
Good luck on the paperwork!
September 22, 2022 at 6:22 am
Lots of annoying college essays were a thing when I applied too. Every college had some variation on the same thing, but required extensive reworking to fit the specific question asked. The common app was around, but schools hadn’t figured out that they could inflate their admissions #s if only they all required exactly the same essay as each other.
Univ of Chicago’s essay was especially weird, and I wrote a poem about why I quit riding on the toilet the morning before the due date. I still have no idea whether I got in because of that poem or in spite of it. It was a pretty good poem though, if I remember correctly!
September 22, 2022 at 9:29 am
Wait, I think I have now parsed this correctly.
You wrote the poem about why you quit riding. While you were writing the poem you were on the toilet.
This morning I was like… riding on the toilet sounds dirty… is that some kind of slang I missed growing up? Is that appropriate for a college essay? But now I’m thinking you did not mention toilets anywhere in your poem. They had no way of connecting it with where you wrote it.
We were really early with the common app too– many schools didn’t allow it yet. The ones that did allow it didn’t have as many supplemental essays as schools seem to have now. And we had to print out our essays on forms the colleges provided and mail them in via snail mail. (Almost all of my sister’s were online!)
September 22, 2022 at 12:58 pm
Hahahahaha yeah I noticed that after I clicked submit. And then I thought, oh well, that n&m, she’s smart, she’ll figure it out. And you did! ;-)
I wonder if the availability of electronic applications has contributed to application-size creep. I also remember having to print out my essay on a form and having to put my application in the mail. Somehow it all worked out!
September 22, 2022 at 12:59 pm
It took several hours of gestating in my subconscious though!
September 22, 2022 at 8:46 pm
I did my essay all by myself but I had a definite strong opinion about my major, which I think is helpful.
I don’t know if I could have gotten into any schools today, because my parents wouldn’t know much about the application process and school counselors were not super helpful. I’m only talking about public universities. Ivy league wasn’t even on my radar. I don’t know how much schools really take income and school quality into account
September 23, 2022 at 7:26 am
The state school process is still pretty sensible, even though DC1 had to write more essays than we did.