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September 2004 Remember the essays you had to write in high school
I find these examples and the ensuing comments to be an example of just how subjective college admissions officers are when making their decisions. Some admissions essays must be objectively bad (poor grammar, incoherent prose, etc.) and I imagine that some must be objectively good, however, it seems to me that the great bulk lie in the middle. In that middle ground then isn’t the merit of one’s essay inextricably tied to the taste’s of the admissions officers reviewing that essay? Would a brilliant essay by Hunter S. Thompson be tossed out because the reader hated drug use and non-conformity? Would an essay by Tom Wolfe be rejected because the reader hated exclamations? Oh my! Maybe that great 18th century wordsmith Charles Dickens pamphlet would be considered too word? Or Hemingway’s to sparse?
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The purpose of the essay is to reveal something personal about yourself to the admissions committee that isn’t conveyed elsewhere in the application. The first essay didn’t work because it was analysis of the merits of two versions of a song. I’m surprised that the crossword puzzle essay was offered as an essay that worked — it seems unoriginal, forced, overly dramatic, self-coscious. I read plenty of those as an admissions officer. The debate one worked because it revealed the author as an observant, empathetic and mature person. And for jello — I think that could have been a very funny essay with some good editing, and perhaps may have revealed the author as a quirky kid with a good sense of humor.
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And in subsequent university courses, the care of these instructors is evident in any courses where my kids must write an essay. They had a lasting impression.
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Even though the essay is written by the student and in the student’s voice, these professionals pointed out flaws that needed correction and reinforced the prompt questions.
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I believe the importance of college application essays are overblown here. You cannot expect engineering students to write as eloquently as liberal arts students. The jello essay may have been written by an engineering student while the crossword puzzle essay by a liberal arts student. I hope colleges are not just looking for good writers. This country needs great engineers too! And you are not going to be impressed by many of their college app essays.