Chapter Eleven

An Interview with an Experienced College Counselor

As part of this book, one of us sat down to discuss college essays with Jim Conroy, a retired college counselor with forty years of experience at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois. During his time at New Trier, one of the country’s top high schools, Conroy was frequently quoted in national publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Atlantic. As the chairman of post-high school counseling at New Trier, he met with thousands of students and read just as many essays. The following are his shared thoughts:

What is the intent of the Common App essay?

The Common App essay has three purposes. First, colleges want to see if you can put together coherent sentences in the King’s English. Second, they want to see if you can follow directions. I have had students tell me they know what they are supposed to do, but they decided they would go a different way. I have to tell them, “no, no, no, this isn’t a multiple choice. There is no B, C, or D. There is only A.” Finally, the colleges want to see if you can answer the prompt. You have to answer the prompt. And you must remain under the word count.

What are some of the most important do’s and don’ts?

The most important thing is “do no harm.” Don’t dig a hole for your application. Don’t be negative. Be positive. Your application tells the schools about you, but in your Common App essay you should tell the school what they don’t know about you: your values, what excites you, something you could write 2,000 words about, if they gave you that many words.

You want to revise your essay after you’ve written it, but don’t beat it to death. And don’t spend too much time on it. I’ve had students whose grades went down because they concentrated too much on their essay and not enough on their grades. That doesn’t make sense.

How should the student appeal to the reader in the essay?

Of course, you want to gear this for the reader, but that is not as easy as it sounds. Remember, you’re not writing for one reader, you’re writing for many readers (assuming you apply to several schools). And they may be very different. What appeals to one, may not appeal to another. I can think something is great, but the reader might not think so. But certain things are important. Be honest. Never make anything up. Something is either true or it’s not. There are things called honesty and integrity.

What are things that will turn off the reader?

There are obvious things, and there are more subtle things. Use words you use every day. Don’t use words or phrases that are not part of the vocabulary of a 17-year-old. I once had a student writing about his experience as a camp counselor. In his essay, he kept referring to the kids as “youngsters.” That raised a flag to me; you wouldn’t use that word in that setting. When I asked him about it, he admitted his writing teacher had written that. Readers can tell that kind of thing very quickly.

Then there’s plagiarism. Do not take off on what’s already been done. There are books that present 100 successful college essays—don’t think you can take one of those or even borrow closely. You can’t. (When I mentioned to him that our book included typical college essays, he said that was acceptable for kids to look at style or get ideas about what to write—but not to copy.)

Are there things that students should avoid writing about?

There aren’t many, but there are some things you should stay away from, especially things where you may be portraying yourself in a bad light. Stay away from certain things. I had a student who wanted to write about how she changed her life after she was caught drinking at a football game. I told her not to go there. She said, “But it’s about how I changed my life.” I said she should think about writing about something else. Politics is not off limits, as long as you frame your essay in the context of a mature dialogue.

Are there things that students should write about?

Not really, pretty much everything is open. I’ve read about things you wouldn’t expect, but they were great essays because they were delightful, genuine, and real. One of my favorites was about a girl who got a lot of stuff done sitting in the middle of the bathroom. She had a large family, lots of brothers and sisters, so that’s where she went to concentrate. But she talked about her family, and it was wonderful. So many kids are under pressure because they haven’t discovered the cure for cancer. But we have to help them get beyond that.

What role should parents and friends play?

Parents and friends can help kids brainstorm. It’s actually an opportunity for kids and their parents to have a good dialogue. Some kids don’t have a great memory for things like when they stood up for something. This is where parents can help them. But it’s not the parents’ role to write the essay or micromanage it. Sometimes it’s better to let the kids step in and say “this is what I want to say.” Ultimately, it is their essay. We are there to help them.

How important is the Common App essay?

In terms of priorities—grades, test scores, activities, recommendations—it’s in the middle of the pack. I can’t think of a college that ever called me and said “what a great essay.” And in fact, with the increase in applications in the past couple of years, some are just not going to be read. If you have a 26 on your ACT, Harvard is not going to read your Common App essay. But your Common App essay may go to many schools that will read it, and you should give yourself every opportunity to make a good impression.

What is one thing your experience has taught you that most people might not know?

Admissions people respect kids’ opinions. Give them space.

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