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Writing A College Essay Assignment

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.

Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.

The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.

Answering Questions:  The Parts of an Essay

A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.

It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)

"What?"  The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.

"How?"  A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.

"Why?"  Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.

Mapping an Essay

Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.

Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:

  • State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
  • Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
  • Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ."  Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay. 

Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.

Signs of Trouble

A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").

Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

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