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Common Application Personal Statement

College Admissions Consulting Hell: Separating the Mostly-Harmless from the Totally Unqualified

A lot of college applicants place particular value on opinions from college students and graduates who have been admitted to T20 schools: after all, the thinking goes, they must’ve done something right to get in. Unsurprisingly, some T20 college students and recent graduates exploit this notion.

A college student or graduate’s success in getting into a college (or colleges) shouldn’t be conflated with expertise in anything, especially college application essays. I am not, mind you, diminishing their accomplishments, academic abilities, or whatever their individual gifts as writers or editors may be. I am saying that writing a suite of essays and getting into – or graduating from – a “top” college no more makes you an expert on college applications/essays than going to an airport and getting on a plane makes you an expert on aviation.


Every time someone posts an “essay that worked” on a website, blog, or media outlet, the writers of those essays are enshrined as experts in the minds of the millions of applicants who are mystified by the process. Lacking access to those writers (who are also not experts), applicants are often inclined to see college students and graduates as repositories of some arcane college application knowledge that can be capably and reliably communicated to them, fortifying their chances by providing a critique of their essay(s) (and their stats, scores, ECs, hooks, etc). This image is magnified by the certainty and confidence with which these consultant-students speak to their abilities and attend to applicants’ essays: a certainty and confidence that, for the most part (I hedge because I know of undergraduate students who have served in admissions roles), isn’t based on any substantial experience with reading, analyzing, or editing these essays, but is only based on their personal (n=1) experience applying to college and the ego expansion that accompanies being trusted as “experts” by people who don’t know any better. In general, the best you’ll get is generic feedback or advice on some of the simpler mechanical aspects of writing.

To give feedback on – never mind edit – an essay, you have to know how to read an essay in two very different ways at the same time. First, you have to know how to read an essay like an admissions reader. I am fortunate: all of the consultants at the firm I work with are experienced former admissions personnel – officers, readers, and directors – from T20 schools. Second, you have to know how to close-read an essay to diagnose its problems and prescribe actionable measures to strengthen the work. What I keep seeing are self-styled “experts,” fresh out of college and regurgitating things they’ve seen on the internet or disseminating bad advice to applicants who don’t know any better.

If it makes you feel any better, I also see plenty of terribly incompetent editors who are not fresh out of college.

Do you need to have close-read Paradise Lost or Coriolanus to able to edit an essay? No… but that kind of experience is what separates proofreaders from editors.

Generic feedback-givers do not diagnose temporal inconsistency (issues with verb mood/tense), incorrect preposition usage, a lack of narrative cohesion, suboptimal organization, or, writers hiding behind generalizations and trying to write what they think admissions officers will like.

They do not see when a student is trying to turn an essay into a cover letter and ignoring a prompt. Some do not recognize the importance of addressing the prompt, instead suggesting that students write whatever they want and then find a prompt that fits, or worse, ignore the prompt altogether in a montage that further dilutes an applicant’s writing.

Lacking experience, they do not see when an applicant has internalized the worst college application essay clichés. They don’t recognize the “I am writing a college application” voice that renders even the most unique topic as boring as the sports injury essays that are forbidden in the gravest tones across the internet. They mistake overwriting with “showing not telling,” not realizing that not everything needs to be shown. Many cannot distinguish between eloquent writers and thesaurus abusers, and discourage expressive applicants with deeply-developed voices from writing essays that are powerful and true. Instead, they encourage students to read “essays that worked,” which only perpetuates the insipid voice that characterizes the majority of college application essays: obsequious, robotic, arrogant, and institutional.


ONCE AGAIN: Acceptance to, or graduating from a T20 school does not grant anyone a sudden expertise in college applications.

That doesn’t prevent recent graduates from these schools from promoting themselves as college admissions experts on social media platforms like TikTok, basing their expertise on limited success, their popularity as quantified by follower numbers, and the same ego expansion I mentioned earlier. While I have no doubt that some of these insufferable internet personalities are capable subject or test tutors, the essay guidance they give is the same generic, derivative advice that is freely available on the internet or on Amazon for the price of a cheap meal for one. When it comes to skin in the game, these influencers have little, if anything, to lose. Most don’t seem to be planning to make a career of this, and are using it to support themselves as they prepare for or pursue graduate work.

Sure, they’re popular. So was the Tide pod challenge.

Yes, they’re adept at marketing. So are disinformation agents.

By all means, enjoy them for what they are: entertainers, not educators.

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