Links to Success 3: Book Review of Admissions Essay Boot Camp

One of the reasons we are building UnMaze Me is to reduce the workload of busy, overtired families by finding them quality information about a variety of high school topics. Just this week, I made a trip to the library and ordered over 15 different books and videos all about the college process. I know information is out there in a variety of ways, but who really has the time and energy to read through all those books just to gleam a few pieces of knowledge? Well… I do, if it will help you!

For the next few weeks, I am going to post book and video reviews in hopes to give you a well-rounded view of the resources available to you.

For this week, I am reviewing the book Admissions Essay Boot Camp: How To Write Your Way Into The Elite College Of Your Dreams, by Ashley Wellington (2014). The application essay can often make or break an application, if you notice on the blog post Are Grades Really That Important, the college admission essay was found to be 4th in line of importance after grades, curriculum, and standardized test scores. That means it’s a big deal! It is often the thing that tips admissions representatives in your favor or not. As the author of this book put it: “it’s the keystone to an application” (Wellington, 2014, p.1). The essay is there to do “more than just showcase your writing ability; ideally, they illustrate your priorities, admirable traits, creativity, and academic promise” (p.1).

Wellington begins the book by right away talking about the importance of the 3 H’s in an essay; Humility, Honesty, Humor.

You are then invited to decide what type of student you are and provides advice for how your essay can best strengthen your application depending on which type into which you fall.

The Achieve-o-tron

The book describes this type as someone who works too much and is in way too many activities. Advice for this type: show humility (from the 3 H’s!) and do “something totally unexpected.”

The Dabbler

This type is someone who is in a variety of activities and does not do one thing really well. I’ve encountered this kind of student myself. I once read a student’s essay and it made me dizzy with all of her bouncing around! If this is you, the book advises that your essay show dedication to one endeavor (related to the program to which you are applying, obviously) and play up your “desire to explore” as a strength.

The Athlete

Academics aren’t quite your thing, but the court and field are.

While talking about the game winning touchdown in your essay seems like a good idea, Wellington suggest you show off your cerebral side by focusing on something more intellectual like a research project, or a book that interests you.

The Club President

This type of student provides a list of titles and demonstrates some academic rigor.

The author’s bottom line is that while it’s great you took on those leadership roles, it will be important to write on “having a clear focus and find[ing] a unifying theme that can highlight a positive personal trait” (p.8).

The Average Joe

This student is the average B kid, not leadership titles but a member of different organizations.

Best case here, according to Wellington, is to show that you are a late bloomer in the academics game, so using “anticipation” you should focus on areas into which you wish to dive deeper and explain how you are going to do that.

The Natural

Someone naturally academic- tests high, but has become bored and restless.

This book advises that it will be important here to show you are interested and interesting. It would be best to showcase how you used your talents to accomplish an endeavor.

The Un-Natural

Unlike the Natural, these students have to be tireless hard workers to stay in the honors classes. These students are well organized, have great time management skills, and great work ethic. In the essay, advises Wellington, showcasing your enthusiasm for learning is key.

The Secret Prodigy

While this student is not so great in the classroom, he or she has key areas of passion outside of school activities. Imperative here is showing your area of passion,  commitment, and how to bring that to a community or learners.

One of my own favorite essays that I like to share with students is from John Hopkins. It’s funny, memorable, and shows a unique passion.

The Buddy

The buddy is friends with everyone, loves to engage with others and connect with people. Advice for the Buddy: your essay should be focused on connecting with others, maybe a special community service project, or trip, but showing your extroversion and affability is key.

The Aristocrat

This student is defined by a zip code or affluence their parents may have.

The book is clear that students in this category should not “try to demonstrate hardship or feel sorry for yourself in any way.. show your values, such as strong work ethic and loyalty” (p.13). In other words, be honest (another of those 3 H’s!)

From here, the book starts walking you through how to craft a good essay. One of the first things to do is to write out a list of activities or resume (stay tuned for an upcoming UnMaze Me Resume Worksheet post to help with this). Second, the author suggests doing a freewrite exercise by just writing down something from your resume you can speak a lot about - your personality, a personal experience, a community service, a turning point, etc. Make it personal and make it honest. Once you have a good freewrite, go back through and see if any themes emerge from it. After this process, Wellington walks you through creating an outline, editing your paper, and gives some examples of good and bad essays.

A word of caution from my own experience: you definitely want to edit your paper, but be careful not to make it too clinical so that it reads like a research paper. Also, while thinking outside of the box has its advantages, being too abstract or writing the entire thing in prose does not reflect well either. Having a well crafted, clearly thought out essay that shows a student’s true personality and abilities is extremely important, and what will be the memorable part for the admission rep reading it.

I liked how Wellington (2014) breaks down each of the Common Application Prompts (the essay topics from which to choose when completing Common Applications) into which type of student should go for each one. Here’s a summary:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Club Presidents (insight on character), Buddies (highlight outgoing personalities), Achieve-o-Trons (add personal ‘oomph’)

 2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Achieve-o-Trons (show humility), Naturals (prove they can put forth effort), Buddies (strength in buoyancy), UnNaturals (strength is their doggedness)

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Aristrocrats (take pressure off of their background), Athletes (showing their cerebral side), Naturals (not everything comes easy), Dabblers (show dedication), Average Joes (take up a cause)

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Secret Prodigies (explain their free time passions), Average Joes (describe a passion or newfound interest), UnNaturals (prove motivation goes beyond grades), Dabblers (show a long-standing hobby), Buddies (explaining their interactions with others)

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Athletes (explain why a sport is important and connect it to something academic), Secret Prodigies (show the significance of their independent endeavors), Club Presidents (to show something not on their transcripts).

Overall, I thought this book had some great tips on the essay process. Her writing style was easy to read and informative. While her focus was on the Common Application essay, her tricks throughout the book would support any college’s essay for admissions, not just elite admissions. 

Full Reference:

Wellington, A. (2014). Admissions Essay Boot Camp: How To Write Your Way Into The Elite College Of Your Dreams. New York, NY, Ten Speed Press