Sunday, March 24, 2019

Don't cheat your way toward college admission, but do this...

I did not attend an "elite" undergraduate college, although I teach at one now.

It never would have crossed my parents mind nor did they have millions of dollars to urge a college to accept me. No one took my SATs for me or wrote my college application essays.

The college admissions scandal that has been roiling its way through the headlines is demoralizing on many fronts. Students who found their way toward admission through fraudulent means to elite schools have taken seats away from those who applied honestly and on their own actual merits. The scandal also suggests that the parents involved had too little faith in their own children that they could succeed in life without a dishonest push from the nest.

The most obvious takeaways from the most recent admission scandal are: Don't cheat or try to bribe your way into school. And: Know that a student can receive as strong an education at a non-elite school as an elite one. The best writing teachers I ever had were at Bethany College, a small liberal arts school in West Virginia. Bethany is many fine things and my guess is that many students would thrive there, but it is decidedly not elite.

In full disclosure, while I've never taken money for doing so, I do give some prospective college students advice on their application essays. Giving someone advice, however, is far different from writing someone's essays for him or her.

Having served on the admissions committees for three different schools, I'm confident that an essay alone is not enough to earn admission. But a good essay can certainly help an application.

While many high schools provide guidance to students applying to college, the sheer volume of students -- and the tendency for some students not to be ready to apply to college when their high school decides it will practice writing essays -- makes it challenging for students to get the help they need when they need it.

Since I am concerned that some students with limited means are likely at a disadvantage when it comes to availing themselves of college preparatory services, the right thing is for me to offer some free advice. Here are four pointers to writing a strong application essay:

First, make sure your essay responds to the question posed on the application. Don't simply use the practice essay you wrote for school if it doesn't directly answer the question.

Second, include something in the essay that gives the admissions committee a sense of who you are. Not a brag sheet, not a list of accomplishments, but as heartfelt a story as you can muster that relates to the topic.

Third, proofread whatever you write and cut any words that aren't absolutely essential.

Fourth, read your essay out loud to see if it sounds like you. Admissions committees, if they're doing their jobs, want to get a sense of who you are. If your essay sounds like you, that helps.

If you do all of this and you don't gain admission to every college you applied to, go ahead and be disappointed. But do not fret. You want to be someplace that wants you for who you are, not what someone paid someone else to make you appear to be. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

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Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin