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Volume 11, Number 6
November/December 1995

The Application Essay

Texts, Subtexts, and Teacher Intervention


Why is the college application essay so hard for students to write? It's not just because nervous seniors usually leave it for last among the hurdles of the application steeplechase. Nor is it only the casual intrusiveness of the typical essay question: "Describe a risk you have taken." Part of the discomfort, no doubt, comes paradoxically from the advice that counselors and the applications themselves have often given students about to write their essays: "Relax as much as possible when you work on your essay" (Stanford University) or "There are no right or wrong answers—we simply want you to be yourself" (Colby College).

Students usually know better. The personal essay is their last chance to make an impression on the faceless admissions committee, and perhaps to tip the scales over to acceptance. The "right answer"—an eloquent essay—can be a powerful door-opener. Moreover, it is the one part of the application over which they have complete control. No wonder they leave it for last.

The subtext of the essay question, especially at selective private colleges and universities, is that it has become a marker to identify certain ineffable values. M.I.T., for example, encourages essay writers to be "entertaining"—a challenge, no doubt, for many applicants who are not native English speakers. Indeed, many of the examples published in the book Essays That Worked are voiced in either a Calvin Trillinesque urban whimsy or its rural cousin, Sandburgean high-mindedness—leaving the striving suburbs underrepresented.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    B. Curry and B. Kasbar (eds.). Essays That Worked: 50 Essays from Successful Applications to the Nation's Top Colleges. New York: Ballantine, 1990.

    C. Georges and G. Georges (eds.). 100 Successful College Application Essays. New York: Plume, 1988.

    M. Mason. How to Write a Winning College Application Essay. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1994.

    S. McGinty. "In the Space Provided: The College Application Essay." English Journal 84, no. 3 (March 1995): 70-72.