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Writing Your Way into College

The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.
--Anais Nin, author

On a sunny autumn day in San Diego, scores of college guidance counselors from across the country resisted the temptation to walk along the city's famous beaches. Instead they grabbed seats in a chilly, windowless room. The counselors, who were attending the College Board's annual convention, had shown up for one reason -- to learn the secrets of writing a successful college essay.

Not surprisingly, the room was jammed. With top schools so competitive, many ambitious kids assume that if they write a zinger of an essay, it just might keep their application from getting fed into a paper shredder. So everyone -- from kids, to parents, to counselors -- is eager to know just what a winning essay looks like.

The speakers at the College Board session included administrators at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, which keeps 20 staffers busy reading 50 essays a day, six days a week during application season.

Here is what they had to say:
Avoid the thesaurus. Don't write like a pedantic humanities professor who is trying too hard to impress colleagues. Avoid ostentatious words that you would normally never touch. One presenter at the College Board session provided this real, over-the-top example of an overstuffed essay:

    Hi my name is Jim, and since brevity is the soul of wit I will meekly attempt to convey to you a succinct summary of my ephemeral existence. Allow me amnesty as I am often a bit alliterative. Time is of the essence throughout humankind, and with every word I write, the nearly endless ebb of extravagant expressions flow like a rushing river, fleeing futilely towards an irrelevant ocean. Dam!

    Don't write like that!

Skip the English paper. Too many high school English teachers encourage their kids to write with as much creativity as a cardboard box. They don't do their kids any favors by insisting that they follow stilted formulas. For instance, when students write the classic persuasive essay, they are supposed to stuff the pros and cons on a subject, whether it's abortion or the Iraq war, in the very first paragraph. High schoolers are often penalized if they deviate from that formula even if they pen a far more compelling essay.

High school teachers often chastise kids who dare to use "first person" in their papers. Colleges, however, are eager to experience an applicant's "voice" in an essay, which means writing in first person is essential. The Yale speaker at the College Board gathering called essays written in third person "scary."

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From The College Solution Copyright © 2008, FT Press. Used by permission of FT Press, and Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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