University of Virginia Piece on College Essays

One of my favorite resources that concerns writing the college admissions essay– an annoying task– has recently disappeared from the University of Virginia website. Written by Parke Muth, a UVa admissions officer, the piece discusses what makes for an effective or ineffective college essay. I don’t agree with it entirely– it states that good essays always show and never tell, exactly the kind of absolutism that I reject– but I think it is good advice, well-expressed. While the essay can be accessed through the Internet archival project, I feel that it should be out there in a live page, so I’m reprinting it here. If Muth or the University of Virginia has any objections to this reprinting, I will of course remove it immediately.

Writing the Essay: Sound Advice from an Expert
by Parke Muth

Fast Food. That’s what I think of when I try to draw an analogy with the process of reading application essays.

The bad. Ninety percent of the applications I read contain what I call McEssays – usually five-paragraph essays that consist primarily of abstractions and unsupported generalization. They are technically correct in that they are organized and have the correct sentence structure and spelling, but they are boring. Sort of like a Big Mac. I have nothing against Big Macs, but the one I eat in Charlottesville is not going to be fundamentally different from the one I eat in Paris, Peoria or Palm Springs. I am not going to rave about the quality of a particular Big Mac. The same can be said about the generic essay. If an essay starts out: “I have been a member of the band and it has taught me leadership, perseverance and hard work,” I can almost recite the rest of the essay without reading it. Each of the three middle paragraphs gives a bit of support to an abstraction, and the final paragraph restates what has already been said. A McEssay is not wrong, but it is not going to be a positive factor in the admission decision. It will not allow a student to stand out.
 A student who uses vague abstractions poured into a preset form will end up being interpreted as a vague series of abstractions. A student who uses cliché becomes, in effect, a cliché. If we are what we eat, we are also what we write.

Not only does a preset form lead to a generic essay, so does a generic approach to what is perceived as the right topic. Far too many students begin the search of what to write about by asking: What does my college want to hear? The thinking goes something like this: If I can figure out what they are looking for, and if I can make myself look like that, then I’ll improve my chances.

Several years ago we asked students to describe an invention or creation from the past that was important to them. Our No.1 response – at least a thousand people – was the Declaration of Independence. This might make some people think that our college bound students are wonderfully patriotic, but given that my institution was found by Thomas Jefferson, I have a better answer. My guess is that a significant portion of the people who chose the Declaration did so because they thought we would want to hear about how much they admired Thomas Jefferson. While this may be a noble sentiment or, in some cases, a cynical maneuver, it ultimately meant that we had a thousand essays that sounded pretty much alike and therefore did not affect the admission decision. We are not looking for students who all think the same way, believe the same thing, or write the same essay.

Too often, however students who want to avoid sounding generic with respect to form or content choose exactly the wrong remedy; they think that bigger topics – or bigger words – are better. But it is almost impossible, in 500 words, to write well about vast topics such as the death of a loved one (see excerpt: “the bad”). I am not advocating longer essays (just remember how many applications admissions officers need to read); I am advocating essays with a sharp focus that allows for detail. Detail is what differentiates one essay from another, one applicant from another.

Instead of detail, however, students try to impress us with big words. In trying to make a topic sound intellectual, students resort to the thesaurus and, as a result, end up sounding pretentious or at least insecure about using the voice they would use to describe an event to a friend. The student assumes that these “impressive” words intensify the experience for a reader rather than diminish it. Before students send off their essay, they should always read it aloud to someone who knows them well; let that person decide if an individual’s voice comes through.

The good. A good essay is not good because of the topic but because of the voice. A good writer can make any topic interesting, and a weak writer can make even the most dramatic topic a bore.

Students need only to recall the difference between two simple concepts – showing and telling. A good essay always shows; a weak essay always tells.

By showing, a writer appeals to all of the senses, not just the visual. To show means to provide a feast for the eyes, ears and, depending on the essay, the mouth, nose or skin. But rather than telling a reader what show is, it is much easier to show what showing is.

The student whose essay appears below, an example of “the good,” has undertaken the task of describing – that is, of showing, in detail – the deterioration of her father as he gets treated for cancer. I do not know of a single member of our staff who was not deeply affected by this essay, the whole of which is as well done as the excerpt. What is impressive about the essay is the willingness of the writer to carefully notice everything that is happening. She opens with a sound, that coughing, and then creates a visual scene that we can see clearly. I said before that writing about death and sickness is perhaps one of the most difficult topics to tackle in a college essay, but here we have an example of why this topic can demonstrate not only writing ability but the courage to face a terrible situation head-on with intellect and power. Compare this with the other essay about death. There, even though the writer was saturated with emotions, he was merely telling us, in abstract terms, what he felt.

A writer who shows respects the intelligence of the reader; a writer who tells focuses on the ideas, or the perceived ideas, behind the details. He or she is more concerned about demonstrating the ability to be abstract then the ability to be precise. In a short, personal essay, precision is power.

The risky. Any student who has already learned the basics of showing should think about taking a risk on the college essay. What kind of risk? Think about starting an essay with: “I sat in the back of the police car.” Or, as in the example (below): ” The woman wanted breasts.” These first sentences use what journalists call a hook. The sentence reaches out from the page and grabs our attention. It creates a bit of controversy and an expectation that the writer might be willing to take academic risks in the classroom. A good hook does not mean that a good essay will follow, but it does mean that a reader will look forward to seeing what will unfold.

A risky essay can border on the offensive. In some cases, as in the excerpt, it is possible that a few readers might write off an applicant based upon questionable taste. That is the danger of taking a risk. People wonder if they will be penalized if they do take a risk in an application. They want to know, in other words, if there is any risk in taking a risk. Yes, there is. I can say, however, that my experience in the admissions field has led me to conclude the great majority of admissions officers are an open-minded lot and that to err on the side of the baroque might not be as bad as to stay in the comfort of the boring.

The best essays are crafted not from a formula for success but by a voice that is practiced. Those who are willing to take a risk, to focus on that part of the world that matters to them and to show the passion and the practice it takes to write about it well, will help their chances of admission through their essay.

Excerpts from essays to U.Va.

The bad: From an early age, we accept death as the inevitable, but do not comprehend its actual denotation. Death is the impending future that all people must eventually grasp. In my early teens, my grandfather tragically perished. As a youth who did not identify with such a cataclysm I was saturated with various emotions. Initially, I was grieved by the loss of a loved one and could not understand why this calamity had to befall upon my family. I always considered death to have a devastating effect, but was shocked by the emotional strain it places upon an individual.

The good: The coughing came first, the hacking in the middle of the night. Then there were the multiple doctor visits, each one the same: the little white rooms with magazines where I tried not to stare at the bald, gaunt woman across from me. One of the white coats finally said something, steadily, forecasting an 80 percent change of rain. The list of second opinions grew too long to count, looking for someone to say the right thing. Finally, there was relief in hearing the name of a kinder killer: lymphoma.

The risky: The woman wanted breasts. She had fame waiting on her like a slave, money dripping from her fingertips and men diving into her being. Yet she wanted breasts because the world wanted her to have a bust. She looked at the big black and white glossy of herself arching on a silken carpet and knew that the world would be satisfied with her airbrush deception.

————This woman is us. My family has been in existence for nearly 20 years now, and we are aging and losing our own breasts and tight face – the giddy happiness of a child’s unconditional love for his family, the young family’s need for each other. Yet, we are constantly pressured by society’s family icons into compromising our change and age instead of accepting it.


  1. I’m trying to find a way to say this that doesn’t make me sound like an old fart, but lately I’ve been thinking how much of college is wasted on the young. I don’t remember a single thing about my college essay, but I’m sure it was absolutely wretched, because I didn’t even really know what an essay was at that point in my life. (It’s not “a thesis and three pieces of evidence”, that’s for sure.) I think I could write a pretty good one now, though.

  2. Hi Fredrik,

    i am flattered you would post this to your readers. I am committed to providing as much free advice on this topic and many others related to admission and education in general. It seems like you are too. If I can help you i any way please let me know. It’s always good to see that people are trying to help others through what has become an all too stress-filled process.

    I like the Ong quote too. He was far more prescient than many people gave him credit for. over the last 20 years but it appears he is becoming a figure to be reckoned with again. You are ahead of the curve.

    1. I remembered your essay from when I was in college when I was applying for graduate school, and I’m so grateful that I kept a copy.
      I am in my eleventh year teaching English to high school students, and I teach juniors in both Regular English courses, as well as AP Language and Composition.
      As a writing teacher, I try to encourage voice, having a “hook” and writing with a purpose, and your essay does just that. You know your audience, and you try to connect. Thanks for this resource, as it works its way into my curriculum every spring. It’s an exccellent springboard into conversation, as well as empowering for students to have a voice–and perhaps, take a risk.
      Wishing you well,
      From Redmond, Oregon.

  3. With a nod to JdB’s comment, above, I know I’m going to sound like an old fart in the following, and I’m just going to get on with it—

    While I have great respect for FdB’s insights into so many things, here, I think that both Freddie and Parke miss the more salient point, which I’d put this way:

    In requiring a “personal essay” in the first place, admissions committees (AC)are setting themselves up for the dreary task of reviewing and sorting what is simply a statistical given. Most students fall within a very common average. It simply isn’t possible for many of them to write anything very distinguishing about themselves–unless of course the student is a talented fiction writer and the AC doesn’t detect that.

    I think that, like so much else in the admissions requirements, a personal essay really amounts to just one more rather deperate attempt to find some rationalized justification for prefering one applicant over another.

    More honest and scientifically-minded people would take the now-established experiences of ACs reviews of personal essays and conclude from them that they’re using an arbitrary crutch in the process of selection. From that recognition, a critically-minded person would conclude that the personal essay itself is the problem and that it ought to be dispensed with. Then, he or she might reconsider the validity of all the rest of the measuring tools and throw out what is dross. If, in the end, one cannot find any better means of selection than simple random distribution of places among the applicants whose profiles aren’t otherwise remarkable, then why not try this? The results might surprise the college administrations; they might show that a mainly random selection is no worse for identifying those students who can and do profit from and succeed by a college degree than a supposedly more discriminating process.

    A real valid appraisal process demands more time and personal interaction to get to know a candidate than nearly any college can afford to expend. As colleges have become more and more commercial businesses, the costs are impossible to justify.

    What do the best students possess and by what means can a college admissions process reveal these things? Surely a striking imagination should be among the attributes that a college admissions committtee ought to prize in the candidates. But the admissions processes themselves tend to indicate that when it comes to exhibiting striking imagination, the colleges fall far short.

    The outstanding essays are, by definition, “outstanding,” and, so, go quickly and easily into the next stage of the process–unless the essay is the final stage in the procedure. The obvious chore is in the sorting of all the rest of the essays.

    More fundamentally, Neil Postman pointed out that all education–at least after kindergarten and the earliest elementary grades–suffers from the lack of a clear and coherent response to the question: “What is education for, anyway?” Since contemporary education doesn’t ask and cannot coherently answer that question, and flees, instead, into refuges based on commercial imperatives and quantitative analysis for its meanings and purposes, the enterprise of education remains condemned to a moral emptiness at its core. As long as post-high school education remains driven by commercial imperitives, this moral emptiness is going to prevade everything such institutions do–including, especially, the inability to effectively address such dilemmas as the admissions processes present.

    I recommend to every admissions committee member at colleges and universities everywhere two books–Neil Postman’s Technopoly, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow .

    1. This response is intellectually impressive and puts together a rather compelling argument. I think that you should read “no longer separate but not yet equal”. They toy with the notion of lotteries and they have about as impressive set of data as any book which takes on the subject.

      But if you are in favor of the lottery system how far down ware you willing to go. Would you also support getting rid of all AP classes for people in high schools? Should classes in high school be run by lottery? If I am reading you correctly I would think you would say yes.

      I guess I would point out what effect this might have from a teacher’s point of view. In teaching at a highly selective school I never have to call for order, never have to worry too much about slackers, never have o worry that people are so poorly prepared that they will take discussion far away from the level I would wish to take it. The entire dynamic would have to change if what you suggest was implemented.
      At a time when we are falling far behind the top educational systems in the world I think dumbing down classes is not in our national self-interest.

      And then there is the pragmatic view. Without holistic evaluations and without a simple lottery the colleges would become what some magnet high schools in the US already are. There is a kind of diversity or lack of it (depending on which side you are on) that disturbs various interest groups. When over 70% of the Stuyvesant class is Asian people in the community are not happy. The holistic evaluation permits schools to take in a more “diverse” class. That being said, the book I mentioned shows statistically that Asians have a much much harder time being accepted to selective colleges and universities and this is an issue I am fighting to change. So I am, in essence, speaking both sides and seeing that I think there has to be compromise in order for some of the social good we believe in to be supported.

      As my hero and former teacher, Richard Rorty, would often say, we have to muddle through rather than fight so hard for ideals that simply will not work in the world.

      I would propose another book too. I like Kahneman’s book too, but have not read postman’s. I will put it on my kindle wish list.
      I think the book “little bets” is quite good. I would propose that each of the students admissions officers fight for who are not quite up to snuff by numbers is a little bet. And I can tell you it is these kids who have given me the greatest joy in admission. I have taken some risks accepting kids who had some intangibles–an essay, an activity, or some je ne sais quoi I could not define easily and who came in and made a difference not just in the school but in tw world. But this is far different than opening up the doors to everyone. If the bar is high people tend to strive for it. If the institution has to lower the bar so students will not drop out then this will create a huge problem for everyone. Look at no child left behind now that it is behind us. Kids could not keep up and teachers were changing grades i order not to be fired.

      Let me know if I am reading you at all correctly. I am prone to overstatement so please forgive me if I have not presented your fine remarks with the subtlety they merit.

      1. “PS”

        I want to thank you both for the time and care you gave to reading and replying to my comment and for the very interesting reading suggestions you’ve made.

        I assure you that I shall read not only the two titles you recommend, but will certainly also mine these works for the references they include to other texts and authors.

        As a way of saying thank you for the reading suggestions, I want to augment the two titles–you’ve already read Thinking, Fast and Slow, by D. Kahneman.

        I recently stumbled upon two of the most fascinating texts I’ve ever had the good fortune to take up–

        The original editions are in french, both by Jean-Jacques KUPIEC,

        a brief ‘essay’, the transcript of his presentation at a conference, it’s called L’ontophylogenèse – Évolution des espèces et développement de l’individu (Quae éditions (31 mai 2012) ; ISBN-13: 978-2759217861

        the other, earlier and more elaborated work, of which the conference transcript constitutes a sort of summary, is published in English as well as the original French edition,

        L’origine des individus, (2008, Editions Fayard, Paris)

        also published as

        The Origin of Individuals (2009, World Scientific Publishing Company, Singapore) ISBN-13: 978-9812704993

        I believe both of these would interest you very much. The implications are immense and you would recognize immediately their importance for your other professional and personal interests, I am sure.

  4. “The entire dynamic would have to change if what you suggest was implemented.”

    No doubt. There is simply no way for education to accomplish what should be its central mission as I see it– to promote students’ becoming morally enlightened, critically aware, citizens in a society of which they regard themselves a vital part, and toward which they feel responsibility and a desire to care for and preserve and contribute to the best of its culture–simply no way to accomplish this without undertaking the arduous tasks of fundamental reforms, reforms which are premised on a reconsideration of what has gone so terribly wrong in the conventionally held opinions—the accepted mythology—of the public about our society, and how and why that happened, and what must be changed in order to rectify those mistaken and harmful conventional beliefs.

    All that said, I am neither utopian in my demands or expectations, nor ready with a set of easy recipes for success. Our society is the result of myriad factors which, in combination, produce an immense mythology; that mythology, widely effective and widely unrecognized–for that is the character and purpose of myth, to work upon people without their awarenesses of their influences–underpins the system’s power structures, perpetuates its designed inequities. In short, while lots of random effects are always intervening, the outcomes still remain quite close to what is reasonably the intended set.

    I also view ‘No Child Left Behind” as a disgrace. But my understanding of political affairs tells me that it did and does what it was really intended to do–continue to savage those who are already least favored in life’s lottery while protecting and preserving almost all of the best resources and opportunities for the forementioned unlucky’s opposites, those who, from birth, started with immense advantages of all sorts, social and physiological.

    I am torn between, on one hand, my sincere empathy for educators which springs from a recognition of the simply impossible circumstances they are obliged to face and with which they must contend and, on the other hand, their key roles–for many unbidden and unwanted but nonetheless apparent–in a system which is, despite much flowery rhetoric to the contrary, designed and intended to produce outrageous disparities in the allocation of society’s costs and benefits.

    To be blunt, while I acknowledge that you exhibit the same sort of best intentions that are common in those who are rightly thought of as being among the best and most dedicated teachers, I still think that the sad facts are that this not only makes you quite exceptional compared to the majority of teachers, and that, not only are there too many teachers who, unlike you, are not troubled by the system’s immoral outcomes, you must of necessity make a far greater contribution to perpetuating a disgraceful status quo than to seriously hindering or even challenging that status quo.

    Or, briefly, our very repugnant system—which I grant you understand to be so—depends for its continued existence on sincere, dedicated people like you who, while wanting to do what is right and just, do what is required despite what this means practically for the goals of doing what is right and just–that is, people who reason, as you have, above, that “we have to muddle through rather than fight so hard for ideals that simply will not work in the world. ”

    That cited view illustrates as well as anything I might cite why I regard your former teacher and hero, Rorty, as having been a disaster in his influences and why, as such theorists’ parts go in our society’s sordid habits, I believe he has done much, much harm and that he did so partly through a confidence in himself and his convictions which was both great and greatly mistaken.

    RE: “At a time when we are falling far behind the top educational systems in the world I think dumbing down classes is not in our national self-interest.”

    I agree that “dumbing-down” classes, letting standards drift and decline, is the very last thing that should be done. It would be better to abandon all students to their fates and tell them frankly that society cannot educate them adequately and that they must do the best they can to educate themselves–to strive by every possible means to get their education force and mainstrength, luck and clever devices, whatever means come to hand rather than see formal educational institutions surrender to the temptation to race to the bottom. Thus, I know that, as you say, you could not have yet read Postman’s Technopoly, for no admirer of Postman could reasonably subscribe to the process of dumbing-down–a grotesque outright betrayal of the most fundamental responsibilities of a teacher to his students.

    I promise to look for, obtain and read Little Bets and to offer at least one commentary on it here in this forum after I have done that. I’d also be extremely interested in reading your comments and thoughts if you should care to read and comment on Postman’s Technopoly because in reading it you will have acquainted yourself with a very important part of the bases from which I reason and argue here.

    RE: “Would you also support getting rid of all AP classes for people in high schools? Should classes in high school be run by lottery? If I am reading you correctly I would think you would say yes.”

    I don’t know. But, briefly, I’d say, maybe but not necessarily. Much depends on what can be done with the basic understanding which average citizens (i.e. parents of students) bring to their place and part in society and what they can be helped to understand that school ought to be about and achieve. Unlesss that basic understanding is improved, remade from the ‘thing’ as it now seems to exist, school administrations and teachers are going to remain trapped in the circumstances you so vividly described as the lot of so many public school teachers who are as fortunate as you in your school.

    As part of a fundamental reconsideration of the educational system, the point and purpose of AP classes should be addressed. As I understand the accepted rationale, AP classes are thought of both as a reward for, an incentive to, the supposed best and brightest students and as a kind of acknowlegement by the system that what’s presented in the mainstream classes asks of the best students a good deal less than what their abilities allow them to offer, and, so, its thought that the curriculum fails to challenge them as they deserve to be challenged and as, supposedly, the other, average students, are challenged by the maistream curriculum.

    But all of that springs from a terribly rationalist and utilitarian conception of the point of education. It starts from assumptions about competitive goals and motives, rewards and ‘punishments,’ a false and mistaken neodarwinist view of talent and the supposed necessities for competition for scarce resoursces. It’s also driven by views which assume an ‘essentialist’ view of the world, and a view of society as aimed at some special ‘final ends’ in human endeavor.

    By way of example:

    If, on the other hand, the basic objective is to help in the forming and instuction of students to become morally, imaginatively and creatively lively and responsible cititzens—not only for society’s needs and interests but, most of all, so that the students themselves have a real chance to realize lives which are as rich in purpose and meaning for them,, by their lights, once the schools graduate them—then these fortunately talented students who’d have been in AP courses might become integral parts of a raising, rather than a lowering, of the standards of excellence in the regular course curriculum. In other words, the best students might agree to contribute personally and directly in the presentation and teaching of a highter quality course to themselves as well as their fellow students—those who aren’t seen as “AP material”. By the school’s recognition of their talents and a commitment to challenging them and offering the highest possible quality courses, these students accept responsibilities to share in the improved instruction of their peers. That constitutes an attempt to combine the objectives of moral growth, maturity, with the practical needs and conditions which go with a school’s responsibilities to its entire student body. It assumes that by regarding themselves as being part of a society, with a stake in and interest in the betterment of that society’s members, the students, by both giving and receiving in this give-and-take affair, gain in their moral education, their maturity, and in a sense of important belonging—which students obtain where, otherwise, these days?

    This summary example cannot possibly work flawlessly and perfectly in the same way everywhere. It assumes, in addition to forming a population of parents who are capable of seeing in it real benefits and advantages for their children, a continuous attention and adjustment of the basic operation on the part of the schools to particular realities of place and circumstances in each school. That is, it’s a general model not a one-size-fits-all plan. It must be made and adapted to each school’s peculiar circumstances. But the same general goals and principles should inform and guide all those varied applications.

  5. correction :

    …”as the lot of so many public school teachers who are as fortunate as you in your school.”….

    should read, as the lot of so many public school teachers who are not as fortunate as you (are or as you have been) in your school.”

  6. I have been in the process of moving so Have not had time to respond to your wonderful post.
    i looked up origin of individuals but it is out of print and 100.00 bucks is not in my budget. Any others you would suggest?

  7. Thank you for this post. It widened my idea of college essays. I wonder if you have any piece of advise for students who are applying for summer courses as they also ask for essays. I do understand I they don’t have to be so impressive as a college one, but all the same good. Do you think that just explaining why one wants to take part in the course and expressing dreams, goals, Eric would be good? Finally, how long should it be?

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