photo of a woman thinking
Writing College Application Essays

Why Are College Application Essays So Badly Written?

Why Johnny And Janie Can’t Write

There are a few harsh truths that no one wants to face about college application essays, writing in general, and the state of this aspect of the humanities in K-12 education as it relates to higher education. Since no one seems to be addressing them, I’m going to say the quiet part out loud, but I’m going to try not to re-litigate the case for literature, philosophy, and the humanities as they relate to culture.

There’s a deeply-rooted utilitarian idea that the purpose of higher education is to enable a degree holder to get a high-paying job. Without getting too granular about it, the highest paying jobs that you can pick up with an undergraduate degree these days are primarily in tech (read: computer science) and finance (read: business, applied math, statistics, economics). After embracing this idea, students who seek degrees in these sectors/industries often see the humanities – particularly literature and writing – as a waste of time. If you think that the purpose of higher education is to attain technical skills that will help you get a job, then you’re likely to think that any coursework unrelated to those skills is “useless.”

The logical extension of that thinking is to view high school (and college) English classes and college application essays as quaint nuisances at best, and, at worst, useless, archaic obstacles to your career as the next Bill Gates or Elon Musk.

In a recent Substack article, writer Blaise Lucey neatly summarizes the utilitarian argument:

“College, an investment, must produce capital and careers are where one finds that capital. Capital is power and power propels purpose.”

– Blaise Lucey

From a strictly economic point of view, that argument is unassailable, even as academics resist admitting that universities are becoming what amount to STEM trade schools. What’s most fascinating about this argument is that colleges like those in the Ivy League built their prestige on being strongholds of liberal educations, even as students come to see them as little more than brand names attached to alumni networks, and conduits to Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

Placing capital ahead of culture has consequences

Despite that argument’s merits, embracing a worldview that champions capital over culture and devalues the humanities and social sciences in education has consequences. One of those consequences is the degradation of people’s ability to express themselves in writing.

The majority of college application essays that I see are… well, far lower than the standards to which they aspire. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve told a consultant that an applicant should be in a remedial English composition course. I don’t know how the educational system has failed to teach students the most basic points of grammar, syntax, and organization, but it has failed. Perhaps it’s because underpaid English teachers realize that they’re teaching to a handful of students in their classrooms. Perhaps it’s because students themselves no longer have any interest in learning how to write (because they think it’s useless). Perhaps it’s because teachers are saddled with outdated curriculums that students don’t find engaging. Perhaps students simply devote more time to screens than books. Perhaps they just don’t write enough in school. Perhaps its social promotion. I don’t know.

Beyond the technical problems, far too many of the essays I see are usually choked with disorganized nonsense that is clearly intended to try to impress admissions officers with buzzwords and banal platitudes about “making an impact,” “changing the world we live in today,” and becoming a “well-rounded” student through an interdisciplinary education.

One place where applicants could stand out is in their essay, but most are unfortunately mind-numbingly similar. Teenagers have less than two decades of life to write about, and as a result, they often focus on the same things: overcoming an athletic injury, dealing with anxiety, depression, or their sexuality, or discovering themselves on a trip, with a fill-in-the-blank country such as Guatemala or Thailand.”

– Jeffrey J. Selingo, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions (193)

These kids aren’t dumb. Many of them are brilliantly creative, inspired, and highly-motivated students who either have trouble with writing or, more often, have trouble with this kind of writing. The reason I see their essays in the first place is because they want to write a good essay. When I explain how to think about these essays, and I coach them in how to write to the prompt, I see immediate improvement… if they put my advice into practice.

Students ARE NOT TO BLAME for not knowing how to write these essays

I don’t blame these students for struggling with these essays, because no one’s taught them. They turn to the internet, where’s a LOT of bad advice – not to mention toxicity – and try to piece together some idea of what to write and how to write it. They’re under more academic pressure than they’ve ever endured in their life. Their essays are just one component of a zero-sum admissions game that is inconsistently weighted across the higher education industry, but it’s the one component that they have absolute control over and that understanding creates a tremendous amount of stress. College application essays are intended to persuade a very particular audience to commit to a very particular action in a totally opaque process and, as such, the stakes are incredibly high.

But questions of blame don’t matter when, come September in their high school senior year, students are competing for a handful of spots at extremely selective universities against kids like this, who absolutely crush essays because they’ve taken the time to learn to play and master the game rather than harbor resentment about what they perceive about the relative utility – or lack thereof – of writing, and against kids who, recognizing that they need help, go out and get it from some of the top consultants in the world. They have to learn to write these essays.

A powerful, well-written essay can make a difference and elevate an applicant in an admission committee’s eyes when colleges have to choose between applicants with similar qualifications.

Students can also use the essay to show that they’ve thought carefully about why they’re a good match for the college they’re applying to. They can show their commitment to learning and their eagerness to contribute to the college community.”

The College Board

Beyond the actual writing, the strategies that I’ve seen around essays are also exceptionally bad. Unless your friends, parents, teachers, and counselors have actually spent any time in or around college admissions, then their feedback on your essays is probably not going to help you develop a piece of writing that makes a bleary-eyed admissions officer perk up and say “I want this one.” For that matter, neither will advice from recent college admits, who are often all too quick to attribute to personal brilliance outcomes that can be explained by checking the right boxes. I also know that for most students, those are the only options they have for assaying their essays.

What students are often looking for when they take their essays to friends or family members (or my inbox on Reddit or Discord) to be read is validation: the application process is so painful, tedious, and stressful that they’re looking for ANY sign that they’re on the right path because they just want to be DONE with all of it.

That’s understandable: most kids aren’t used to ambiguity. From the time they’re born, they’re told what to study, what to read, how to act, where to be at a certain place at a certain time, and what career paths will lead them to the promise of socioeconomic stability, perhaps even wealth and self-sufficiency. They are, to be clear, institutionalized. Not-knowing has a way creating incredible amounts of anxiety for kids who already struggle to balance applications with grades, ECs, deadlines, relationships, work, and family obligations.

Even with horrendous writing, however, most students land at some college or another. Most will graduate without improving their writing ability by any meaningful margin. That, too, will have consequences, though by then, I suspect most people will be too dull to notice.

As a college application essay coach and editor, my primary objectives are to help students understand these essays – first how to think about them, and then how to write them – and to make these students as competitive as possible against a field of thousands of applicants with similar stats, grades, and ECs. My secondary objective is far more ambitious. I want to instill these students – regardless of major or career path – with some small part of my love of writing, in the hopes that they will remember that the humanities still have something valuable to teach: what it means to be human.

3 thoughts on “Why Are College Application Essays So Badly Written?”

Leave a Reply