Gabrielle Glancy, an educational consultant who regularly tutors students with GPAs of 4.4, thinks college applicants approach their essays entirely the wrong way. “Most people who are in admissions are actually bored out of their minds by what they’re reading,” the author of The Art of the College Essay says bluntly.
Extra-ambitious students can’t afford to leave admissions officials bored. The last eight years have been especially cutthroat for college hopefuls: An article in The Wall Street Journal called 2012 the most competitive year for college admissions in the U.S., Glancy recalls… but 2013 turned out to be even worse. “It’s just gotten crazy,” she says.
Students know they’re going neck-and-neck with similarly determined applicants, applicants with great grades, stellar SAT scores, wonderful recommendations, and so on and so forth. By the time senior year rolls around, the essay is the one thing they still have control over. It’s not hard to imagine why they’d want to really nail it.
The problem is, a lot of them don’t know where to begin. According to Glancy, high school-aged college applicants generally think that if they list their accomplishments and come off sounding smart—if they brag and use big words, essentially—they’ll impress admissions officials. Parents tend to encourage that line of thinking. As a result, applicants “write these really boring, self-aggrandizing essays,” she says.
Since students’ achievements are already listed in their applications, there’s no real need to repeat them, Glancy says. The essay has an entirely different purpose: It’s about making admissions officials pause and look beyond students’ grades, SAT scores, and cookie-cutter extracurricular activities. A good essay makes admissions officials feel like the applicant is in the room with them. It makes them go, “Woah, who is this?” “The goal of the essay is to stop the person who’s reading it in his or her tracks,” Glancy says.
So, how do you get a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds to write insightfully about their relatively short lives? Glancy’s secret sauce is all about helping students approach writing without anxiety.
GETTING OUT OF WRITING PURGATORY
Glancy laments the fact that all their lives, students have been taught to write formulaically, beginning with the introduction. But it’s nearly impossible to introduce a piece of writing if you don’t yet know what it’s going to be about; nervous college hopefuls often get stuck there, reworking the introduction over and over again and worrying when nothing sounds right.
To get students out of writing purgatory, Glancy guides them through a few simple steps. First, she asks students to come up with three to five moments that have been significant in their lives. Easy, right? Most students pick within seconds. Next, Glancy asks them to write about each of those moments freely, with no thoughts of grammar, punctuation, and impressing other people. Her only rule is that students must use complete sentences. She says that at this point, students usually respond with something like, “Okay, I can do that!” The task is no longer daunting. Once students read what they’ve written, they start to figure out what they were trying to say in the first place.