More on Essays: What are you like when no one is looking?

Kudos to Laurie Fendrich, blogger for The Chronicle of Higher Education and faculty member at Hofstra University, who weighed in on the exotic essays front, as well: “In pushing college applicants to write college essays proving how “extraordinary” they are, we get application essays about the summer spent hiking in Nepal, the semester abroad learning Chinese, the Saturdays spent at soup kitchens, and the long hours at the violin. But all these extraordinary extracurricular activities are almost always artificially concocted. They’re a result of the savvy, ferocious ambitions of students, their parents and their guidance counselors, all of whom desperately work together to make sure the student looks “extraordinary.” “But what we really need to learn about an applicant is what he or she is like when no one is looking. What is the student like in a quotidien sense? In Katherine, we see a young woman who hadn’t ever done anything glamorous with her summers, but had instead spent day after day, for most of her young life, tending cows—and not because it would make for an interesting subject in a college application essay (although it probably would). She tended cows simply because she grew up in a family where she was required to do serious chores.

San Francisco Magazine

Robin Mamlet and Christine VanDeVelde: College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step (Crown Books) The question isn't quite as old as the Sphinx's riddle, but many high school seniors consider it just as baffling: How do I get into college? Or, for anxious parents: How do I get my child into the right college? If the media storm about admissions that blows through our nation every fall is any indicator of public opinion, the "right" colleges are the 15 most hyperselective ones. For some families, failing to crack this puzzle is tantamount to forfeiting the kids' future happiness. Enter Mamlet, a former dean of admissions at Stanford, Bay Area journalist VanDeVelde, and their riddle-free guide, which breaks down the application process into 21 chapters of advice -- on preparing for the SAT/ACT tests, writing the essay, applying for aid, and thanking teachers for their recs. Filled with words of wisdom from more than 50 admissions deans (at Stanford, the UCs, Harvey Mudd, and more) and from high school counselors (including those at Peninsula mainstays Menlo-Atherton and Castilleja), the book avoids all strategems for shoehorning your child into Harvard. Instead, it shows us how to treat the app process as a chance for self-reflection, culminating in acceptance to a school that's an authentic fit.

What's a standout college essay? It's the one about you.

According to a recent New York Times article, students are cultivating summer experiences such as expensive internships or exotic travel experiences "with the goal of creating a standout personal statement." We couldn't disagree more with this "strategy"! Or, as a former admission officer on Robin Mamlet's staff at Stanford put it -- more colorfully --in an email to us, "YUCK.  That should be YUCK in all caps, bold, italics, the works. With many, many exclamation marks." If you ask college admission officers -- including College Admission coauthor Mamlet -- about the essays they find most memorable, overseas internships or travels abroad don't usually top the list. Mamlet remembers an essay about Tom Robbins' novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and another about why an applicant hated piano lessons.  Others recall essays about silverfish, babysitting a younger sister, astronomy, holiday rituals, the family's backyard chicken coop, repairing motorcycles, thrift store shopping for vintage clothing or family breakfasts. With the essay, colleges are trying to get to know you. So the topic is you. The "right" essay is one that reveals your true self, in your own voice -- whether you're talking about studying viruses, raising pigs in 4-H, or your collection of vinyl records.