Writing That Says “Read Me!”

The Washington Post has a page one piece today by Nick Anderson on “Crafting the college essay that says “Read me!” The opening:

Find a telling anecdote about your 17 years on this planet. Examine your values, goals, achievements and perhaps even failures to gain insight into the essential you. Then weave it together in a punchy essay of 650 or fewer words that showcases your authentic teenage voice — not your mother’s or father’s — and helps you stand out among hordes of applicants to selective colleges.

It is a tough 600 words to write. I’ve helped the kids of a couple of friends with their essays, and a former writer at the Washingtonian has made a good living with a business that helps kids and their parents write the essay. From Anderson’s story:

Michele Hernández, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, based in Vermont and Massachusetts, said her team charges $16,000 for a four-day boot camp in August to help clients develop all pieces of their applications, from essays to extracurricular activity lists. Or a family can pay $2,500 for five hours of one-on-one essay tutoring. Like other consultants, Hernández said she does pro-bono work. But she acknowledged there are troubling questions about the influence of wealth in college admissions.

Writing advice from a college counselor at one Washington area high school:

Her first piece of advice: Don’t bore the reader. “It should be as much fun as telling your best friend a story,” she said. “You’re going to be animated about it.” Atkin also sketched a four-step framework for writing: Depict an event, discuss how that anecdote illuminates key character traits, define a pivotal moment and reflect on the outcome. “Wrap it up with a nice package and a bow,” she said. “They don’t have to be razzle-dazzle. But they need to say, ‘Read me!’ ”

Good advice but the story doesn’t touch on the strategies of the really forward-thinking kids. At a Washington area private school I’m familiar with, the kids in ninth grade start asking the question:

What can I do this summer that will look good on my college essay?

Sometimes the secret of good writing, of good journalism, is planning ahead.


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