Words to the wise about writing college application essays

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, July 1, 2010

I had lunch recently with two rising 12th-graders at the Potomac School in McLean. They are very bright students. They told me they had signed up for a course in column-

writing in the fall.

Naturally, I was concerned. There is enough competition for us newspaper columnists already: bloggers, TV commentators, former presidential advisers, college professors. Many of them write well and make us look unnecessary. The idea that 17-year-olds are getting graduation credit to learn how to do my job fills me with dread.

But I think I know what the Potomac School is up to. They aren't teaching these kids to write columns. Their real purpose is to show students how to write their college application essays.

Think about it: College essays are essentially columns, little bits of persuasive prose designed to be both personal and instructive, without too much wear-and-tear on the reader.

This reminded me, once again, that I have not matured at all, intellectually or emotionally, since I was 17 and a heck of a college essay writer. My favorite part of being the parent of college applicants was the chance to lecture on the principles of college essay-writing to a captive audience. I wrote a book about college admissions in order to inflict my views on a wider audience. If you have read this far, you know I am doing it again.

Let's dispense quickly with the basics of writing a college application essay. The first rule is, do not dwell on your good grades, top scores, club presidencies and other triumphs. The essay is supposed to reveal something the college admissions people have not already learned from the rest of your application. If all you do in your essay is talk about what a star you are, you will be rejected, because no one wants to inflict such a bore on an unsuspecting freshman-year roommate.

Do not be careless with spelling, punctuation and grammar. Don't forget the best writing has short sentences and active verbs. Read "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White before you start typing.

What else should you do? Write about something you care about, some quirk or habit or interest that defines you in ways not obvious from the rest of your application. One of my children wrote about his Little League coaching. One described her talent for identifying a song on the radio from the first few notes. One explained why he loved Howard Stern.

They found ways to use these themes, even the odd ones, to reveal a personal value that was important to them and, hopefully, impressive to admissions officers. I advised them to take one more step, the only original suggestion you will find in this essay. Reveal an endearing flaw, I said, some bit of self-deprecation that will convince the college that you would be a pleasant person to have around.

Is the essay about your love of chess? Describe the day you set your high school team's record for being checkmated. Are you writing about your effort to ride every bike trail in the state? Say how you felt when you got hopelessly lost in the woods and had to be guided to safety by a passing Cub Scout troop.

Let others read your work. Listen to their suggestions, but trust your instincts. Be true to yourself.

I am sending this column to that teacher at Potomac who seems to think he can teach anybody to do what I do. If he gives me a grade, I may tell you what it is, as long as it doesn't rupture my adolescent level of self-esteem.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company