Here's a sample of a safe, boring, predictable college essay:
"Throughout my high school years, there have been many factors which have influenced my interests and personality. Being a well-rounded student, I have had many experiences working with people ...
"A major influence in my life has been my family. Their love and encouragement have motivated me to expand my areas of interest. Another factor which has influenced me is my involvement in many activities outside of academics. Working with my peers in musicals, tennis, dance, volunteer work and various committees, I have gained a sense of achievement and accomplishment ...
"I am excited about the possibility of attending COLLEGE X ..."
Admissions personnel read stuff like this all day long. It is not, however, the kind of essay they remember, nor the kind that sends a borderline application to the committee for reconsideration. At a highly competitive school, it's the kind of essay that might be classified dead on arrival. Most important of all, this is not the kind of essay students want to write.
When students talk in generalities and don't really share anything about themselves, the essays don't have much personality.
Parke Muth, senior assistant dean and director of international admissions at the University of Virginia, has written a wonderful piece on "McEssays," in which he analyzes what he calls "fast food essays" (bit.ly/176MzR). He offers insights into what makes an essay good, bad or risky.
The generic essay describes an ideal student -- eager, involved, loyal, committed, responsible, etc. But it reads exactly like that -- a generic picture, not a real person. It doesn't help the candidate because it's not focused and it lacks insights into what the student is really all about. The applicant has made it really hard to "like" them. Admissions representatives want to "like" the applicants they advocate for. Students need to set themselves apart.
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit www.collegeadmissionsstrategies.com.