There are a lot of reasons. Many students wait to start writing them until the last minute — and it’s hard to do anything well that way.
A bigger problem is that college essays seem to ask us to Be Remarkable,
to Be Amazing. We know that thousands of high school seniors are applying to the same schools we are, and to stand out in the crowd, being remarkable and amazing would seem to be called for. Yet most teenagers have been taught “Don’t brag about yourself.” And it’s a sound instinct which tell us not to brag.
Also, teenagers writing an essay for adults want to show they can use adult words. Applying to college is an “important” occasion, and so we feel solemnity is called for, and a fresh or quirky style just won’t do. We haul out the 4-syllable words to honor the occasion, just as we put on formal clothes on Graduation Day — it seems the thing to do.
Then too, a college essay is a one-sided conversation. You have no eye contact with the person reading your essay, no sense of who they are, and you get no cues from them about what aspects of you they’re most interested in. It’s no surprise, then, that so many college essays come off as stilted, the opposite of natural.
Finally, most teenagers — most people of all ages, really — secretly worry that they’ve underachieved in life. And so, in any account of ourselves, we tend to emphasize not just the deeds we’ve done but how good we are, and how much we want to improve the world at some later time.
If you think about it, politicians have much the same problem making a stump speech. They’re supposed to be remarkable — or else why are they asking for our vote? They’re having a one-sided conversation with us, trying to boast modestly, using rhetoric that seems tinny and forced,
and promising to improve the world once they’re elected. We sense there is a disconnect between who the Senator really is, and what he’s saying, and so we tune out the message.
And that’s the danger of writing a conventional college essay — that the bleary-eyed staffer in the Admissions Office, having read 41 other essays before yours, will just tune it out.
The first thing to do is to realize that you — the real you, under all the clichés and the posturing — are an amazing person. If you can find a way to show that real person to the Admissions Department, they will like you and want to admit you to their school.
The second thing to do is to throw away all the solemn platitudes in the first draft of your essay. See if you can write an essay which has no platitudes and not a single word in it longer than three syllables. Use active words, and quirky adjectives. Write something fresh and different. Most of all, write something which is honestly you, which could not possibly have been written by anyone else.
Now, I can hear you saying — ‘Without all those big words, and well-known platitudes, and with freshness creeping in, how will the Admissions Department know that I’m serious? How will they know that this isn’t just a lark for me, that I really want to go to their school?
The answer to that is that a serious writer shows his or her intent, and artistry, not by using big, long words but by getting to the heart of things and by using a carefully crafted structure, in which each paragraph serves a distinct and lovely function.
Your opening paragraph should be short and striking, expressing something essential about you, but not resolving this, only drawing the reader in.
The second paragraph builds on the first, making the theme grow and change in some compelling way.
The third paragraph is your dazzler, the paragraph you work on most and love best — the heart of the piece.
After your dazzling third paragraph, the fourth paragraph is a “breather” paragraph. This fourth paragraph can be shorter and quirkier. It can be a self-contained little gem, or it can reflect gravely or sweetly on what the third paragraph has told us.
The fifth paragraph returns to something expressed in the first paragraph but this time resolves it, perhaps with some kind of twist.
I promise if you do all this, you will be Remarkable in your essay — but not by promising vaguely to make the world much better. (The adults reading your essay know how hard that is to do.)
You will be remarkable by your honesty, by the breadth and freshness of your word choice, and by your mastery of the distinct function of each one of your paragraphs.
And you will be remarkable because you have figured out how to get to the heart of who you are, and to share that with a perfect stranger in a way that feels natural to both of you.