- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2005

The new Adam Sandler film “Spanglish” gets comic mileage out of some rather ridiculous college entrance essays. These personalized pleas for entry into the world of higher education are no laughing matter outside the cineplex.

In fact, some say a poor essay could stop an otherwise college-bound student in his or her tracks.

Michael O’Leary, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at George Washington University, calls these essays “the student’s voice in the application.”

Admissions officials stare down a stack of transcripts and recommendation letters, but the essay lets the student state his or her case directly. Sometimes that case is irreparably damaged with a misspelled word or clunky set of sentences.

“You could have a student with terrific grades with a very poor essay,” Mr. O’Leary says. “It factors into the decision-making process.”

Mr. O’Leary says the more competitive the school — George Washington receives more than 20,000 applications these days and admits around 38 percent — “everything takes on more significance.”

Terry Wilfong, creator of The Complete Guide to College Financing and Admissions CD-rom series, says the college essay can sink a student’s hopes more than save them.

“You’ve already done everything to get you in or not,” Mr. Wilfong says of the application process. A poor essay can damage all that solid work, he says.

Should an application counselor see a 4.0 student with remarkably poor grammar, it means a disconnect exists, he says.

An equally troubling trend is students not following the basic guidelines set out by the college or university.

Some students simply recycle an effective essay but never quite address the questions laid out for them.

“If you’ve reworked a good paper from your English class, we’ll know it,” he says.

Simply sending one’s essay in a clear binder can rattle admissions officials if they specifically asked students to avoid trappings like that.

The binders add bulk to the already large stack of essays on an overwhelmed admissions expert’s desk, he says.

Karen Felton, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown University, says the admissions essays aren’t a “make or break” component of the application process.

What the missives do help Mrs. Felton’s department come to grips with is what kind of fit the student would be at Georgetown.

“I think at a highly selective school like Georgetown, the essay is important,” Mrs. Felton says. “It identifies students for whom Georgetown would be the best fit and who would contribute the most.”

She suggests students avoid gimmicks and just be themselves.

A student once wrote, “I’m sending a shoe so I can get one foot in the door,” she recalls. “That doesn’t give me a sense of the student.”

Other applications sound a bit familiar to Mrs. Felton and her colleagues. Plagiarism, often due to students plucking sample essays from the Internet, isn’t rampant, but it is something admissions officials routinely see, she says.

Some wannabe students might assume they know what a college wants to hear and tailor their essays accordingly.

Kelly Tanabe, co-author of “Accepted! 50 Successful College Admissions Essays,” says a competent admissions official can spot phony sentiment at 50 paces.

Ms. Tanabe says the essays “are your best opportunity to show who you are and what you’re about.”

Yet too few take them seriously.

“A handful of students write 20 drafts of their essays, but the average student starts it the week before it’s due,” Ms. Tanabe says.

A college essay isn’t like solving a proof or showing one’s work in a long math equation. There are few definitive right or wrong answers. So why are there so many application-breaking essays flooding the scene?

Ms. Tanabe says some students hurt themselves before the second paragraph begins.

“The easiest and biggest mistake … is they put the wrong name of the college,” she says. “They get it at every college every year. It’s fine you recycle your essays, but get the name right.”

Other potential students misspell their own major, she adds.

One of the most common traps students fall into is what Ms. Tanabe calls the “Miss America” essay.

“You talk about your dream of ending worldwide hunger. It’s great to be positive, but to sound like Miss America is a big mistake,” she says.

“In general, most colleges appreciate creativity,” she says.

Her key advice is to follow one’s muse.

“There’s no subject you must write about. What you’re naturally passionate about will come through in your essay,” she says.

Mr. O’Leary advises students to avoid inflammatory subjects, “especially if they come across with their very strong personal stand. You never know who will be reading the essay and how it will rub the reader.”

“One student made reference to No Child Left Behind. I told him to strike it. It struck me as having a political overtone,” he says. “Better safe than sorry.”

The essay is often a chance to put falling grades or other transcript worries into context.

“If we see falling grades midway through junior year on the transcript and no reference is made to it [in the essay], we’re forced to make an assumption.”

The college entrance essay may take on less importance down the short road as the revamped SATs require a written sample as part of the overall testing. Universities may deem that sample enough to gauge a student’s writing chops.

For now, the essay is still a part of the process, and Mr. O’Leary suggests students do their best with it and then give it space.

“I tell students to write the essay and put it away for a few days and then take a fresh look at it,” he says.

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