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The Urban School
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1563 Page Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
415 626 2919

Next Steps Blog


The College Essay

by Suzanne Schutte
Associate Director of College Counseling

"Applying to college is a lot like standing in the middle of a crowded street wearing a sandwich board inscribed, in highly legible type, with your deepest, darkest fears and loftiest aspirations. And underneath that sandwich board, you're completely naked."
Jessica Reaves. Chicago Tribune

Writing the college essay can unnecessarily evoke this kind of anxiety. Seniors often feel that anything less than a uniquely witty self revelation will hurt their chances for admissions.  

Most Urban students – without much help – write wonderful, self reflective essays.  However, they can get stuck when their essays are "98 percent” because it feels like a sentence or word could alter the course of their lives forever.

Some procrastinate. When I ask them how they are doing with their applications, they'll say that everything is done except the essays. In fact, they may decide not to apply to a college because they will have to write another essay.

It is important to put the college essay in perspective. The essay is one small part of a student's application. Admissions offices care much more about transcripts, teacher and counselor recommendations and test scores. The industry of essay tutors and "how to" books give students one very destructive message: You can't write a winning essay on your own. Admissions officers tell us that they can tell the difference between a 17-year-old voice and a coached 40-year-old voice.  

At Urban, Susan and I and English teachers are helping seniors trust their ideas and writing skills, and are teaching them to proofread and edit their own essays. In fact, English teachers are often the best people to help students find their own voice.

For students who aren't sure when they're finished, here's some good advice from The Huffington Post. Granted, it's a bit tongue in cheek, but still worth reading.

Admissions Freakout Countdown: The Application Essay - Whose Life Is It Anyway?
by Karen Stabiner (click here to read)

Your senior is at this point on the umptee-umpth draft of an essay that is supposed to make him or her stand above the crowd, but I am here to tell you, as both a writer and a parent, that you might as well deflect some of that energy into cleaning out the garage. Give it a good try….but please, don't precipitate an identity crisis.

1. Never - ever - use the passive tense. It's not "The huts in Fiji were built by myself and four other volunteers." It's "I worked with four other volunteers to build six huts in Fiji."

2. Make sure your senior knows the difference between "it's," a contraction that means" it is," and "its,"` which is possessive, as in the dog ate its bone. Honest. Lots of them still don't.

3. One adjective per noun will probably do it.

For those students who are procrastinating, trust yourself and follow this good advice from the NY Times Blog, The Choice:

-- While there is no magic formula for the perfect admission essay, there are a few things prospective college students should know. Here are the Top Ten tips from (Connecticut College) Admissions Dean Martha Merrill:

-- Write about yourself. A great history paper on the Civil War might be very well written, but it doesn’t tell me anything about the writer. Regardless of the topic, make sure you shine through your essay.

-- Use your own voice. I can tell the difference between the voice of a 40-year-old and a high school senior.

-- Focus on one aspect of yourself. If you try to cover too many topics in your essay, you’ll end up with a resume of activities and attributes that doesn’t tell me as much about you as an in-depth look at one project or passion.

-- Be genuine. Don’t try to impress me, because I’ve heard it all. Just tell me what is important to you.

-- Consider a mundane topic. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that make the best essays. Some of my favorites have included essays that reflect on the daily subway ride to school, or what the family goldfish observed from the fishbowl perched on the family kitchen table. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event to be interesting and informative.

-- Don’t rely on “how to” books. Use them to get your creative juices flowing, but don’t adhere too rigidly to their formulas, and definitely don’t use their example topics. While there are always exceptions, the “what my room says about me” essay is way overdone.

-- Share your opinions, but avoid anything too risky or controversial. Your essay will be read by a diverse group of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, so try to appeal to the broadest audience possible.

-- Tell a good story. Show me why you are compassionate; don’t tell me you are. Show me that you have overcome great difficulty; don’t start your essay with “I have overcome great difficulties.”

-- Don’t repeat what is already in your application. If you go to a performing arts school and all of your extra-curricular activities and awards relate to dance, don’t write about how much you love dancing. Tell me something I couldn’t know just from reading the other parts of your application.

-- Finally, don’t forget about the supplements. The supplement questions are very important – you should plan to spend as much time on them as you do on your essay. A well-written essay won’t help if your supplement answers are sloppy and uninformative.
Posted by Kristen Bailey on Monday November, 16, 2009 at 10:05AM


Choose groups to clone to:


Susan Lee
Co-Director of College Counseling
415 593 9511

Lauren Gersick
Co-Director of College Counseling
415 593 9512

Leslie Schaffer
College Counseling Assistant
415 593 9519

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