This post is a Golden Oldy, but based on some essays I have looked at recently, I am putting it back up front.
Long ago, in a decade far away–specifically in 1986–the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd interviewed an Ivy League admissions officer named Harry Bauld. Bauld had worked at both Brown and Columbia universities before turning to teaching and writing. In this interview, and in the book which he wrote about the college essay, Bauld’s advice is still apt and shows just how little has changed since the 1980’s.
Bauld observes that the essay is most important for those in “the gray area.” He defines a student in this category as “not one whose academic numbers make you too easy to dismiss or too overwhelming to deny.” I would like to intervene here to point out that, given what the bell-shaped curve demonstrates, he is talking to the majority of well-prepared high school seniors, most of whom are not immediately disqualified by low GPA and test scores but who are not running valedictory laps, either.
So if you are not one of the top half dozen students in a good high school, Bauld is talking to you. And what he says is: exercise care. In fact, Bauld argues that the college admissions essay can be the “ultimate noose with which a 17-year-old can hang himself.”
Let me qualify Mr. Bauld’s dire metaphor by pointing out that the college essay is not likely to be a deathlike–or even a near death–experience. It will, however, be the first piece of writing that actually affects the lives of most students. So attention must be paid, and we should begin with what should not be done.
Harry has some essay types which he thinks will be duds at best or laughable failures at worst. First among Bauld’s targets is the kind of autobiographical essay which is basically a list of achievements meant to show how unique and appealing the writer is. I will add my view that the immediate problem with an autobiographical essay of this kind has to do with the competition. All high school students share certain experiences, and if they are candidates for college, they also share particular traits and have, for the most part, pursued similar activities designed to plump out the resume which they need these days to be competitive applicants. In other words, you are unique, just like all the other kids writing the same essay, but the result of the typical application process is that you engage in very similar activities and have very similar grades to your competitors. The process itself pushes most students toward the center, and, as Bauld notes, if you are part of the drab middle, you won’t stand out to the poor essay reader who is flipping through essay after essay after essay . . . .
This is the challenge: how to stand out without offending.
Bauld goes on to list five more types of essays which should be avoided at all costs.
The first he calls the “My Favorite Things” essay. In this type of essay, the writer presents a series of things she is passionate about–or in favor of–and often juxtaposes this with a list of things she does not favor. The structure says it all: it’s much like the top or bottom ten lists offered by certain comedians and media personalities. This has become a pretty tired trope and tends to provoke vague generalizations and inarguable claims (e. g, I am opposed to nuclear proliferation, pollution is bad for the planet, etc).
Bauld next identifies an essay he calls “The trip essay.” You go on a trip, tell the reader about it, and manufacture some important “life lesson” to attach to your sojourn in order to show how broadly experienced and thoughtful you are. Unfortunately, “manufacture” and “Life Lesson” say it all. Any time you impose a moral on an autobiographical tale, you are in dangerous territory. At the least, you are probably taking yourself too seriously, and you are also more than likely imposing some interpretation on your story after the fact and might even be making some things up to make it convincing. Either tactic is inauthentic, at best.
The third type is “the three D essay.” Bauld describes this as the kind of essay in which the applicant argues for his own Determination, Drive and Discipline. Bauld finds this kind of essay dull. I agree, not because determination, drive and discipline are bad things, nor because your reader can say that you don’t possess these qualities (unless your GPA and other information give you the lie, in which case it wouldn’t matter anyway). The problem is that this is a kind of bland, formulaic writing which offers no complexity and which requires no insight into the self. A comic-book hero from the 1950’s might write an essay like this. Hi, my name is Clark Kent, aka Superman, and I am a clean-cut and disciplined fellow who always does the right thing . . .
The fourth type of essay Bauld calls “The Miss America Essay.” He refers here to the moment in the Miss America contest when the would-be’s step up to a mic and offer their insights into world affairs and the important challenges facing the world. While still looking great in a swim suit. Need I say more?
Finally, Bauld offers what he calls the “Jock Essay.” In this, a high school athlete offers an account of lessons learned from sports, or how sports taught him to have the discipline, et al, necessary for success. This sounds suspiciously like the third kind of essay, in my opinion, but Bauld, as a longtime reader of college app essays, may feel that this needs to be a separate category because so many people create this kind of essay.
Bauld goes on at great length and offers good examples in his book, which is still one of the best on offer. Have a look at your local bookseller, or if you must, on Amazon. Buy it if you wish, but my suggestion is to start writing immediately. I will add to this that I don’t think that you necessarily have to avoid writing about a trip which was an authentically powerful experience for you, nor should you eschew the topic of athletics if you are an athlete, and if you are passionate about some world problem or political topic, by all means, write about it.
Just be sure to write from an authentic place and don’t create some sort of stereotypical narrative with a predictable outcome. Life isn’t terribly predictable, even if your life so far seems to be.
In an upcoming post, I will address Bauld’s categories at more length and show you how you might approach one or more of these essay types which Bauld so heartily condemns. As he says himself, the most important thing is that you “come alive on the page.”