The Case for Not Listening to Your English Teachers

Lord knows I would not have gotten as far in this life without Charlie Wells and Ethel Smeak. Mr. Wells introduced me to the semi-colon, the oxford comma, and Chinua Achebe; each were pivotal moments helping to hold together the center of my early academic life. Dr. Ethel Smeak introduced me to theme and character, Sheridan and Marvell, structure and paradigm. Charlie Wells stood on desks and enacted soliloquies from Shakespeare in his torn suits and his Liberty ties. Dr Smeak’s dog, “Sir,” would sit in a basket by her desk in the classroom as she led us through stunning literary analyses. I would not be the writer or reader I am today without their influences.

However, neither of them taught me how to write a 650-word college admissions essay.

In recent conversations with several potential clients from the High School class of 2019, I have heard:

“I have already written my college essay in English Class.”

“My English teacher says I should use an essay I wrote for an assignment as my admissions essay, because its good.”

“My English teacher gave us all an assignment to answer a question about life and told us to use it as our admissions essay.”

Unfortunately, 95% of these essays are unusable and should not be submitted as admission essays by your students. “Why?” you ask. For the following reasons.

  1. (and this is a BIGGIE) Many times the essays students write DO NOT ANSWER THE PROMPT asked by the college. Teachers get students to write an essay on an original prompt. The exercise of writing to prompt is a good one… but if the prompt is not the question being asked by the university… you may not get favorable results.
  2. Many times, teachers- when asking a student to write a “college admissions essay”- will disregard form for creativity. Colleges look at your essays for FORM and FUNCTION. Don’t overlook grammar for creativity. In other words, do not end your sentence in a preposition, use the vernacular, or incorrectly punctuate. (I’m looking at you, Miss Run-on-sentence.)
  3. Teachers may not understand how an essay is judged. An outstanding admission essay is a curious, singular thing- do not assume teachers know for what college are looking.  After teaching a student for a semester, year, or longer, teachers are subjective. They know their students. College admissions officers know very little about a student applicant; they know only what is in the application. So, before you submit that essay (on which is written, “I love this” or “totally you!”) ask yourself these simple questions, “If this was the ONLY piece of information an admissions officer read about me, what would they think? Does it accurately reflect an important part of who I am not otherwise seen in the rest of the application?”
  4. As stated above, FORM is all. An English teacher might not mind you going over the word count limit,  admissions officers do. They read thousands, THOUSANDS of essays. Playing by the rules ALL OTHERS ADHERE TO, is part of the way they judge you. Do the rules not apply to you? Do you feel that your essay is worthy of more time than those of other applicants? The implications of hubris and disregard for rules could be setting you up for a bad first impression. Play by the rules.                                                       

So, spend the summer reading the prompts in the applications you are filling out; write an appropriate, heartfelt, original, funny-but-not-too-funny, honest, memorable, meaningful, individual, self-reflecting, well-punctuated ANSWER to the question asked- before you head off to your senior year… and don’t submit the one you did in English class.  Ethel Smeak and Charlie Wells would agree.



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