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Valerie Strauss College Essays

Most high school seniors have now heard back about their college applications, a process often cast as a kind of “Hunger Games,” with young Americans battling it out for a chance to attend one of more than 3,000 four-year degree-granting colleges, seeking help wherever it may come, believing that the result will determine the course of their lives. But despite the crush of advisers proffering their supposed expertise for money, the endeavor is shrouded in misconceptions: that colleges don’t check applicants’ social-media pages, that world-famous people like the Obama daughters can get into school with little more than a good recommendation, that most students aren’t admitted to their first choice. (They are, but many can’t attend because of the cost.) Here are five of the most stubborn.

Myth No. 1

Admissions essays don’t matter.

In 2014, Time magazine offered a startling notion to frazzled parents and anxious students worried about their college admissions packages: Those finely honed, painstakingly crafted essays “might not make a difference for your college admission chances.” After all, at some schools, the pool of applicants is much too large for every essay to be read — at the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, only 1 in 7 essays is a factor in an admission decision, according to the university’s dean of admissions.

But that doesn’t make them irrelevant. In fact, essays can be decisive when it comes to students whom admissions counselors are on the fence about. A student with borderline grades and test scores could secure a spot in the freshman class with an insightful, well-crafted essay, or be rejected because of a lousy one — or when it’s clear to counselors that an adult, not a student, has written it. And a poorly constructed essay, or one marred by punctuation and grammatical errors, can sour even a great application.

Myth No. 2

The more extracurriculars, the better.

Last year, William Hurst, writing in Inside Higher Ed, called on schools to end the “extracurricular arms race,” noting that “many American high schools push their students to excel in as many extracurricular activities as they can, often because they think this helps those students gain admission to top colleges and universities.” College counseling services such as Navigatio and Synocate, meanwhile, direct students to try out lots of extracurriculars and to list outside-the-box activities on their résumés to help them build up their applications.

This is an outdated way of approaching college admissions. When colleges and universities were thought to be seeking “well-rounded” students, applicants with long lists of curricular and extracurricular activities stood out as great candidates thanks to their broad interests. Students were expected to engage in sports, cooking clubs, debate and, of course, community service that sounded more meaningful than it really was. But about a decade ago, schools changed their focus from well-rounded students to those with hyper-developed interest in one or two subjects, which became apparent to me in the way admissions counselors answered my questions about extracurricular activities.

Nowadays, schools look for both kinds of students as they attempt, each year, to create an interesting, diverse, high-performing freshman class. That may include an applicant extremely passionate about the viola and another who plays every sport and is a member of a dozen clubs. The best way to impress admissions counselors, as always, is to authentically pursue what interests you.

Myth No. 3

Ivy League schools are the most selective.

There are eight schools in the Ivy League: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale . All private schools in the Northeast, they came together in 1954 as a sports league, with the term “ivy” referring to the ivy growing on their campuses.

These days they’re known as some of the most selective colleges in the United States, with several admissions coaching businesses pitching themselves as capable of winning paying customers these coveted spots. The least choosy among the Ivies, Cornell, took 14 percent of applicants for the Class of 2020; the most choosy, Harvard, took just 5.4 percent.

But these aren’t the most selective schools around. Stanford University often takes less than 5 percent, the smallest share of applicants , and it isn’t in the Ivy League. MIT, Caltech and the University of Chicago, all with acceptance rates of about 8 percent for the Class of 2020, are more selective than some of the Ivies, too. Plus, many schools may take a higher proportion of applicants but are equally picky about their credentials: A liberal arts school like St. John’s would look dubiously at a savant engineer from a technical high school who hadn’t taken humanities classes in his final years.

Myth No. 4

Average grades in hard classes are better than A’s in easy ones.

“In most cases, taking an AP class and getting a B is a better choice than getting an A in a regular one,” according to the Princeton Review . Kaplan, a test-prep business, agrees. What’s more, schools often weight difficult classes more heavily when tabulating GPAs, so these tips seem to make sense.

Not so fast. Yes, colleges and universities like to see students take challenging courses in high school. But in my experience covering education, selective schools usually don’t like grades below a B, and struggling in more than one tough class is not seen as a plus. So unless students can keep their grades in higher-level courses at or over the B range, it probably makes more sense to take regular classes.

Even though grade point averages are often boosted by challenging classes, which award more points than the typical 4.0 A, colleges can tell when a GPA is bloated, admissions officers say. As Peterson’s, an admissions and test-prep agency, explains, high schools use distinct grading systems and offer courses that have the same name but varying degrees of difficulty. And, as Peterson’s notes, many colleges have their own systems for recalculating GPAs.

Myth No. 5

Schools don’t need affirmative action to make diverse classes.

“ ‘Diversity’ isn’t why colleges need affirmative action,” Bloomberg View’s Noah Feldman declared in 2012. The fact that some universities, like Texas A&M, have increased diversity while banning affirmative action might suggest that schools don’t need such programs to keep their campuses diverse. And like other opponents of affirmative action, Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, has argued that such policies are unfairly discriminatory and don’t help minority students, writing with David Sacks in Stanford’s alumni journal that “if ‘diversity’ were really the goal” of affirmative action programs, “then preferences would be given on the basis of unusual characteristics, not on the basis of race.”

But affirmative action programs do appear to increase diversity at colleges and universities. Though colleges are often cagey about releasing exact numbers on the subject, a look at what happens when such programs disappear tells a worrying story. When affirmative action programs are banned, black and Hispanic enrollment tends to lag. As Haley Munguia pointed out in 2015 at FiveThirtyEight , in states where affirmative action is banned, far fewer universities have shares of black and Hispanic students equal to those in the general population, while states with affirmative action have far better representation in black and Hispanic enrollment. At the University of Michigan, in particular, black enrollment fell 30 percent in the seven years after affirmative action was banned.

Today, affirmative action has lost much judicial support, and public opinion polls on these programs show mixed results. The Supreme Court permits race-conscious admissions policies at colleges and universities only to pursue “diversity” in student populations, not to compensate African Americans for centuries of racially discriminatory public policy. Meanwhile, most minority groups remain underrepresented on college and university campuses, even though most students enrolled at the country’s K-12 public schools are minorities.

Five myths is a weekly feature challenging everything you think you know. You can check out previous myths, read more from Outlook or follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.


This was written by Jonathan Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School. This was a response to a discussion on the e-list of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling about a decision by Common Application officials to limit the length of the main essay students are asked to write on their college application to 500 words for the coming college admissions season. For the previous four years, there was no limit, and Common App officials said essays had become too long and less well written. Counselors complained, though, that 500 words would not be enough to allow students to express themselves. You can read about that here.

By Jonathan Reider

Probably the most famous speech in American history,The Gettysburg Address, is about 250 words. Would that make a good college application essay? Would you have encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to pad it out with more examples? Historical accounts of the speech frequently remark that the preceding speaker, Edward Everett Hale, one of the great orators of the time, spoke for two hours. But nobody remembers what he said. Virgil wrote in dactylic hexameter, surely a constraining challenge. Shakespeare adhered to the 14-line sonnet form. Throwing strikes is hard, I am told. Structure and discipline can just as easily produce great writing or great pitching as inhibit it. No, you don’t have to remind me that the typical high school senior is not Shakespeare or Sandy Koufax.

Good writing is succinct. Yes, Faulkner, Henry James, Dickens, Cervantes, and Fielding wrote wonderful, long books. How many of you have Henry James lined up to read this summer?

Every writer is constrained by length. Every journalist has a limit on their copy. Almost every college supplement has a word limit. Some colleges want an answer of just 25, 50, 200, or 250 words. How do they decide on that boundary? Basically, they don’t want to read too much. Not necessary and not enough time. Kids manage. Brief writing is hard. Mark Twain said, “If I had more time, I would write a shorter story.”

Why is the desired standard length 500 words? Who decided that? I don’t know, but I suspect it had to do with an estimate of how many words, in normal size type, would fit on a single page, back in the days when essays were typed onto an actual piece of paper and read by someone who wanted to read just a full page and nothing more.

Now, in the electronic age, there is no such thing as an actual page, and 500 words seems arbitrary, and to some, it seems, insufficient to be fully expressive.

Any number is arbitrary. There is no reason a classic sonnet HAS to be 14 lines. It just is.

I remember reading those essays, each one mind-numbingly similar to the one before. Five hundred words is enough to make your point and for the reader to decide if you have something to say. The University of California allows only 1,000 for two essays, and I can’t remember anyone complaining that they couldn’t work within that limit. The UCAS (British application process) essay and counselor’s letter are strictly limited in length. It’s actually a relief to have a space limitation for that letter.

Five hundred words will take some work for many kids. That might be a good thing. Not to be overly utopian, but it might be the best thing for student writing since the evolution of the opposable thumb. Students will have to choose their words carefully, delete (almost) every use of the passive voice and the words “very,” “basic,” and “the fact that.”

Every student and adult should read Chapter Two, “Elementary Principles of Composition,” of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” especially the section titled, “Omit Needless Words.” The complaints about even an implied or suggested limit, which is all the Common App is doing, ignore that the essay process should encourage good writing, and good writing is, by definition, brief.

You know who’s to blame? Actually, it’s a “what:” this darn computer, which makes it all so easy, including fixing typos. You can run your fingers across the keys, and the babble flows out.

If we had to write every e-mail to the moribund e-list by hand, the way mom insisted we do to thank people for our birthday presents when we were kids, or the way the kids do for the writing section of the SAT, I’ll bet we would write a lot less. And the world might be better off.

Conclusion: Just follow the instructions!


Correction: An earlier version said, incorrectly, that Virgil wrote in iambic pentameter. It also said incorrectly that Common App officials had said college essays without limit had become too boring. They said the essays had become less well written.


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