That day, at a workshop called “Behind Closed Doors: the Life of the Application,” an admissions dean from a prestigious small college in Connecticut described carrying home a teetering armload of folders every night during her decision season. She told of examining a student’s high school transcript, the SAT or ACT scores, the letters of recommendation.
“And then,” she said, her manner growing brighter, almost big-sisterly and confidential, “I turn to the personal essay, my favorite part.”
She recalled one student who had used her essay to compare herself to tofu because she was imbued with the personalities and flavors of the many people she had mixed with in life. The dean seemed to glow with the recollection. There was no need to add that the young lady had been accepted. We knew.
It was a theme I was to hear many, many times in more than a dozen campus visits. The personal essay, they all said, growing soft and fuzzy, is the one element where a student’s own voice can be heard through the fog of quantitative data.
But what if it can’t? What if, like most 17-year-olds, a high school senior sounds wooden or pretentious or thunderously trite when trying to express himself in the first person? Prose in which an author’s voice emerges through layers of perfectly correct sentences is the hardest kind of writing there is. Plenty of professional authors can’t manage it. How reasonable is it to expect of teenagers?
Nevertheless, college gatekeepers have made a fetish of the personal essay. Twenty-six percent of admissions offices deemed it of “considerable importance” in deciding who gets in, according to a 2009 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
It has become more important over time: only 14 percent said so in 1993.
The more exclusive the college, the more weight the essay is given. Among the most selective colleges — defined by the counseling group as those accepting fewer than 50 percent — nearly half said the essay was of considerable importance. In fact, these colleges give more weight to the essay than grade-point average. Let me restate that: one writing assignment is more critical to a high school senior’s chances of getting into many top colleges than his or her average grades from four years of high school.
To be sure, the essay is not the single weightiest factor. Grades in college prep classes (as distinct from overall G.P.A.) and strength of a high school’s curriculum count for more. Scores on the SAT or ACT outranked the essay in the latest survey, but just barely.
Factors like recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors and extracurricular activities trail far behind.
Admissions experts say the personal essay has gained this mighty weight because elite colleges are flooded with qualified applicants. When so many of them have A averages and test scores in the 98th percentile, colleges tend to throw up their hands.
“Admissions officers are running out of calibration devices,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “All else being the same or similar, the essay suddenly becomes meaningful because it becomes a tie breaker.”
Is this really fair? Certainly some students will succeed in writing wonderful essays. But mostly this will be because of natural talent or dubious outside help. First-person writing is rarely taught in high school English. This is even truer for the brightest students, those who take A.P. English courses, which stress, in the words of the College Board that guides their curriculum, “expository, analytical and argumentative essays.”
But rather than ask applicants to send the most muscular, impressive example of the writing they have spent four years honing — a class assignment on “Romeo and Juliet” or the origins of the Civil War — colleges ask for a genre of prose they have almost no experience with.
Is it any surprise that one admissions dean at the University of Virginia reveals on the college’s Web site, in the guise of offering tips to applicants, that 90 percent of the essays he receives are bad? What did he expect, “Running With Scissors”?
No one will be surprised that the industry that exploits families’ insecurities by selling admissions advice offers to massage students’ essays. Prices range from $150 for a quickie online critique to $2,500 for five hours of consultation with a Princeton graduate who, through the independent college adviser Michelle Hernandez, offers an Application Boot Camp Essay Package.
As I toured campuses with my sons, another refrain we heard was that students shouldn’t worry if they hadn’t had enough life experience to write about the great themes of literature. Small, everyday subjects were just as good, and more likely to produce revealing portraits.
And so an admissions official from a prestigious private college fondly recalled the essay by a young man who had been a fat child, and by great willpower had lost weight, but now had to be hyper-vigilant when thin friends gorged on junk food without thinking.
And there was the Ivy League official who recounted the essay by an A-plus student and standout athlete, who wrote about the one time he had failed spectacularly at something. In the last paragraph, he described showing the essay to his father, who had advised against submitting it because it revealed a weakness.
I am happy for all of them — for Mr. Humility, for Slimmed-Down Boy and for Tofu Girl. I’m sure they are having great college careers. I’m pretty certain that has little to do with their personal essays.
In the next few videos I’m going to walk you through the process of writing a real college essay, and when I say “real” I mean that it’s an actual essay assignment from an actual college course that it is not taught by me and is not one of my classes. In fact, it’s for a communications class within a Canadian community college program for graphic arts students.
I have the actual text of the assignment, as well as an email exchange between the instructor and a student regarding the assignment topic.
In this video I’m going to show you the assignment and this exchange, because it highlights all of the essay principles that we’ve been talking about.
In subsequent videos I’ll take over and walk you through the process of researching, outlining and writing a complete draft of this essay.
We have our Scrivener document open with our essay writing template all set up. If this is your first exposure to this template, I recommend going back and watching the two previous videos in this series that introduce this template.
Let’s open up the preliminary folder. I’ve got a text document called "The Assignment" which has a number of sub-documents. I’m using this to organize all the information we have about the assignment and any communications we might have about the assignment.
Here’s the opening paragraph, under “Rationale”: “In your academic and professional career, sound research and analytical skills we be required regardless of your program of study or employment situation. The effective use of the resources available to you will be critical, as will the skills involved in expressing your ideas in a clear, accurate and organized fashion.”
So this is just trying to explain why essay writing skills might be relevant to students pursuing a career in graphic design, illustration or animation.
Let’s look at the assignment wording.
Write a 4-5 page research essay exploring a topic related to the field of animation/illustration or design studies. Focus on a topic on which differing opinions can be held. Refer to the list of suggested topics for some ideas. You must have your topic approved before you begin.Your goal is to provide your reader with both a general overview and your own informed assessment of the topic/issue.
So, first off, we know how long our essay is supposed to be. 4 to 5 pages is anywhere between 1000 and 1300 words, if we use the standard convention that a single double-spaced page with one-inch margins and a 12 point font like Times Roman has about 250 words on it. So in terms of length, this is similar to the dream essay that I walked you through in the previous video.
Second, we know that we’re being asked to write an argumentative or persuasive essay, even though the assignment doesn’t use this wording explicitly. The key is in the instructions to “focus on a topic on which differing opinions can be held” and to provide “your own informed assessment of the topic”. The essay has to be on an issue on which there is some disagreement, and for which reasons can be offered for or against a particular stance on the issue. And what you’re required to do is present and defend a particular stance on the issue — that’s going to be your thesis statement.
Third, we know that we’re going to need to do some research and cite some sources in the essay, since it’s called a “research essay”, and under Basic Requirements we’re told that we need a minimum of four “significant sources”, and we’re going have to include copies of these resources in the final draft.
The reference to the GAS Style Guide is the term this institution uses for “General Arts Style Guide”. There’s a style document that we’ll take a look at later, but it’s basically APA style guidelines. APA standards for “American Psychological Association”; if you want to learn more about different citation styles, I have a separate unit in this course on ‘How to Cite Sources and Avoid Plagiarism”, where I talk about APA style guidelines.
So, that’s the final product that we need to deliver. But this assignment is for a communications class, where part of the goal of the class is to help teach students how to approach assignments like this. So the assignment includes a lot of what educators like call “scaffolding” — lots of guidance on intermediate steps that are required to complete the assignment.
If you were in this class you would be spending a good deal of class time working on the essay. And this instructor has added a some intermediate deadlines that break down the writing process.
Part 1 involves researching, identifying sources and writing a detailed outline, and this needs to be submitted three weeks in advance of Part 2, which is the final essay due date.
Now let’s look at what the instructor has included under “suggested topics”.
The following suggestions may lead you to an interesting topic for your essay. Consider doing some preliminary investigation of one of the following ideas.” And a bunch of ideas are listed below, but first notice this line …Once you have selected a broad subject of interest to you, you should begin the process of narrowing the focus to determine your essay topic. Remember that your topic must be approved by your professor before you proceed with your research.
So what the student actually has to do first, before getting to the outline phase, is they need to do some preliminary browsing and select a broad topic area and then and specify a narrower issue within that broader topic, and submit that to the instructor for approval. This is actually a good thing, and we’ll see why in a minute.
Now here’s a list of suggested topics. You can see they cover quite a range, but they’re all in areas related to art and design in some way.
You can see how the “broad topic” - “narrow topic” distinction is being drawn. “Culture and lifestyle” is the broad topic — graffiti or body art would be the narrower topic. “Influence of Canadian artists” is the broad topic — the influence of Emily Carr or Robert Bateman would be the narrower topic.
Let me show you an actual student proposal for their research topic submitted to the instructor for feedback.
Students were asked to identify a broad topic, a narrowed topic, and a working thesis statement.
This student chose “Job prospects for fine arts students after graduation” as the broad topic.
For the narrowed topic, this student wrote “How many fine arts students actually get work in their field.”
And here’s what they wrote as a working thesis statement:
Fine arts students often struggle with finding employment in their field immediately after graduating and end up giving up and pursuing something because they underestimate how much time it takes to become successful and productive in that field. Students need to realize that learning is a lifelong process and the skills they acquire can be applied to things not immediately evident in traditional university offerings.
Now, I said that submitting this kind of thing for review is often a good idea, and here’s why: if there’s a structural problem with your vision of the essay at this beginning stage, it’s much better to catch it now, at the outset, than to discover it farther down the line after you’ve invested a lot time on an essay that is structurally unsound.
So the student submits this to the instructor. Here’s the instructor’s feedback.
These statements — ”Fine arts students often struggle with finding employment in their field . . ." and "students need to realize that learning is a lifelong process . . ." — are more factual than arguable. In other words, I don't think there is a school of thought that fine arts students do NOT struggle or that students do NOT need to realize that learning is a lifelong process. If you don't have a point of view to support, you don't have the basis for a persuasive essay.
The instructor uses the terms “factual” and “arguable” in somewhat odd ways, but from the clarification it’s clear what’s intended. To call a claim “factual” is to say that there’s general agreement that the claim is true, that it’s an agreed fact. And by “arguable” the instructor means that there’s room for disagreement about the claim.
So, the feedback that the instructor is giving this student is that in this proposal they haven’t identified an issue that anyone would disagree with, and that this is problem, because an essential feature of a persuasive essay is that you need to identify an issue about which reasonable people might disagree, so that there’s a reason for offering arguments in favor of one side or the other.
The instructor gives one more piece of feedback:
… it's not clear what you mean by "skills they acquire can be applied to things not immediately evident in traditional university offerings." Are you saying that the skills learned in a university program are "transferable"? This would be factual as well.
So here the instructor is asking the student to clarify this statement, and that if all it means is that skills learned in university programs can be transferred to other kinds of work, this is obviously true as well. I actually don’t think this is what the student is getting at, but the point is that it’s unclear.
Now, as a student I might be discouraged to get this kind of feedback, but they should be thankful because it really is helpful.
Why is it helpful? Because it’s feedback about a fundamental structural issue — not an issue of style, not wording or spelling or formatting. It’s feedback about what’s required for any good argumentative or persuasive essay; that minimally, you need to have something to argue about, something to take sides on.
It’s obvious when you put it this way, but this example just illustrates that for many students it’s NOT obvious — not unless they’ve done some argumentative writing in the past and are familiar with the conventions of this form of essay writing.
In the next video I’m going to show you the essay topic was revised and the results of some preliminary research.