Basically, some students are gifted writers; some are better test-takers. Aside from college essays that are written by parents or buy essays online from paid consultants (and if admissions readers can't suss this out, that's another problem for another conversation), an essay can be a great insight into who a student really is, not to mention his/her facility with language. And so what if that student is putting forth a best image? That's what we all do, not just teenagers. It's part of the human condition. It isn't even necessarily a bad thing: it's healthy to aspire to be better than we are, and perhaps a college essay is a good place for the kid to start.
Frankly (and this isn't news), the greater problem is our national obsession with uber-competitive schools constantly touting how super-duper extraordinary all of their students are. Uber-competitive schools do require a ridiculous amount of achievement by the time a student is 17 and then on top of all that achievement, a student is expected to show publish-ready writing skills. Besides, a student hoping to earn a degree from an Ivy League, or any of the other "top" schools, has to walk on water, cure the common cold, publish an award-winning poetry collection (preferably before high school), and spend every moment of free time spearheading a grass-roots political campaign. That's all on top of taking not only as many of the most competitive classes possible in high school, but also out-stripping the high school's curriculum and taking college-level courses along with everything else. That's the con job: the expectation that it's only students with super-human intellectual and emotional strength who have anything to offer a highly-selective institution.
And we wonder why kids are falling apart in college?
As someone who reviews a lot of application essays, in my case for interns, sincerity is worth more than any clever preparation or cheating. I regularly select kids with lower grades if they have a short, straightforward essay that shows they can follow instructions and have a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve.
I think it is often the kids and their parent who pack on the pressure. And it makes them fall into the trap of meaningless cliches. If you complete the task as assigned then it is just a matter accepting that you don't control what happens next. If the kid is a late bloomer they can always start at community college and transfer later.
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