Words Count

We all know that numbers count.  Your grade point average and your standardized test scores will open doors at colleges where you fit based on the numbers that you earn.  As an English teacher, though, I am partial to words, and I want to assure you that words count, too, in the college process.

Of course, you will use words to answer questions on your applications and words to write your college essays.  Through this writing, colleges will get to know how you think, how well you compose your thoughts on paper,  what is important to you, and how you have made a mark on Norfolk Academy or the surrounding community.  Admissions readers will want to see how you have faced hardship or failure and what you learned from it.  If you have a unique interest that you have pursued or a special project that you have designed and completed, colleges will especially want to know about that.

Regardless of your experiences thus far, you can write compelling stories that will capture the attention of college admissions readers.  Think about stories that only you can tell in a voice distinctively yours.  Be sure to leave your reader uplifted by your story rather than let down, and, by all means, avoid what Parke Muth, former Associate Dean of Admission at the University of Virginia, calls “McEssays:”

“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 a cliché becomes, in effect, a cliché. If we are what we eat, we are also what we write.”


Advice abounds on “Best Tips for the College Essay,” and I encourage you to seek this guidance, but the most important tip that I can give you is to be your best self.  And a few don’ts—Don’t try to impress anyone.  Don’t resort to the thesaurus for words so obscure that even the most knowledgeable reader will need to look them up.  Don’t over edit your writing to the point that you destroy your authentic voice.  (The first sentence of your essay should hook your reader and then flow like a conversation with a friend.)  And, obviously, don’t download an “essay” from the internet or allow anyone else to write the essay for you.  Admissions readers have great radar and can tell when an essay does not “sound like” a high school senior.

Finally, don’t overwrite.  That is, make each word count.  Most college essays are capped at 500-650 words, not many, really.  To do this, think small.  Begin with a moment or an object that you infuse with significance as your writing unfolds naturally.  I tell my students to write clear, clean, and lean compositions–quite the opposite of a Big Mac.  (As a vegetarian, I am particularly averse to the “McEssay!”)


The best way to polish an effective essay?  Revise, revise, revise.  (Your college counselors will be happy to offer suggestions.)  Hit “submit” only when you are certain that your essay is ready for other eyes!

In addition to your writing, your college counselor and teachers will write letters of recommendation on your behalf.  Your teachers will write about your performance as a student in their courses, while in our counselor’s letters, we write extensively about your background, your character, and your contributions as a citizen at N.A.   To do this, we rely heavily on the information that you supply on the senior questionnaire on Naviance.  As you write about yourself in this questionnaire, keep in mind that character counts, too.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself in relation to character:

  • Do I accept criticism gracefully with the understanding that everyone makes mistakes?  Do I try not to make the same mistakes?
  • Do I embrace challenge, knowing that a worthwhile endeavor is often strenuous and requires perseverance?
  • Do I stand up for my peers who are being put down?
  • Regardless of the situation, do I have a positive attitude?
  • In any situation, no matter how difficult, do I tell the truth?
  • Can I apply the golden rule by becoming the kind of roommate that I would like to have?

Enough of my words.  I prefer to read yours.  Write on, knowing that in the college admissions process, your words really do count.  Choose them wisely.

Ms. Katherine C. Hobbs, Associate Director of College Counseling
Norfolk Academy
Spring, 2015