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Why Writing College Application Essays Is So Hard

Next to preparing for the SAT and ACT, writing an essay to accompany the college application for seniors remains the most stressful (" 'Read me!' : Students race to craft forceful college essays as deadlines near," The Washington Post, Oct. 28).  I can understand that because I was once in their shoes.

With the exception of a few high school seniors who are naturals, most students of that age lack the wherewithal to fashion an essay that distinguishes them from their peers.  For one thing, how many 17-year-olds have experiences that are unique?  For another, how many are able to overcome what they were taught about a standard five-paragraph English class essay? 

The truth is that writing is hard to teach beyond the fundamentals.  When I was working on my M.S. in journalism at UCLA, I vividly remember being told at the start that distinguished writing cannot be taught.  It is more a gift than anything else.  You either have it or you don't.  That does not mean frequent practice followed by constructive feedback can't help.  But what admission officers are looking for is virtually impossible to teach.

The best advice I was given during my graduate work in journalism at UCLA was to read extensively from a variety of sources.  Doing so leaves imprints in the mind that later can be conjured up when writing. To this day, I continue to read from a variety of publications.  I pay special attention to the opinion pages of major newspapers and magazines, from liberal to conservative.  But high school students are reluctant to follow in this path.  They think that effective writing can be reduced to a cookbook.  That's why they buy any book with "How To" in the title.  

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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