Nov 13, 2015

‘Copy and paste’ is not always your friend

Harvard and Yale sometimes get mixed up in essays.

Everyone has heard the story of the college applicant who inadvertently inserted the wrong institutional name in an admissions essay.  Harvard likes to tell the story of receiving an essay earnestly extolling the virtues of Yale, and Yale tells it the other way around.  Usually the story produces a great chuckle from an audience of prospective students quite sure they would never make such a stupid mistake.  And the message is clear that applicants need to carefully read their work before pressing the submit button.  

What doesn’t always get covered in these conversations is the “why” this kind of mistake might happen. More often than not, it’s because the applicant mindlessly or in a fit of total exhaustion characteristic of last-minute submissions uses a “copy and paste” function to draft essays targeted to different institutions. The assumption is that the applicant doesn’t remember to remove the first institution’s name and sends an essay doomed for the deny pile once an admissions reader from the second institution spies the error.

But the name of the institution isn’t always the single piece of misplaced or misguided information. In an effort to save time or because some essay compiling companies encourage the reuse of boilerplate essays, applicants get sloppy about content, particularly for “supplements.”  The essay will refer to a program, an activity or a major that doesn’t necessarily carry from one college to the next.  Or the essay will become a patchwork of tired language and descriptions transferred across different prompts with different contexts and different word counts. Rather than take a fresh look at the question or consider carefully the personality of the institution, the applicant simply lifts components of one or more essays and strings paragraphs together without concern for transition or relevance.

Yes, the process has become unbearable.  And yes, all these essay prompts begin to seem the same after several iterations of the same question.  And yes yes yes, you’re exhausted by the tenth time you’ve responded to the very tired prompt asking about the community you come from or that single most important extracurricular activity.  

But if you’re serious about possibly being admitted to the institution, you have to do more than copy and paste.  You have to think, and you may have to do a little research. It’s easier if you’ve visited the college and took good notes on what you learned. This information can be used to tailor or personalize your response. Solid, often time-consuming research also helps.  And for heaven’s sake, get the names of the programs right. 

Don’t assume anything. Just because it's called the Institute for Transcendental Meditation at one school doesn't mean it can't be called the Office of Transcendental Meditation at another.

Also don’t make the mistake of cribbing language directly from the website. As one reader recently said, “They forget we help write the stuff.” At the same time, don’t  start substituting names you discovered on the website in a fill-in-the blank exercise designed to suggest that he or she is exactly the person with whom you’d like to work if you haven’t met the person, corresponded with them, or taken a close look at their research. It can easily get you in trouble especially if you suggest a familiarity that simply does not exist. The same holds true with programs and activities—have some idea what you’re writing about!

Keep in mind that while you are juggling seven to twelve or more colleges, your reader will be hyper-focused on one institution. And that reader tends to know that institution, its programs and faculty very well. 

And here’s a secret: as much time as you spent in English class or at essay “boot camp” on the perfect personal statement, it’s often those pesky supplements that are most important to the admissions reader. More than one has candidly confessed that they often go directly to the supplements and skip over the personal statement because “it’s been through too many hands” or because they have more of a vested interest in the other essays. After all, they might have written the questions or had a direct hand in constructing the prompts.  Despite all the marketing, the personal statement is not always the most important writing sample for the admissions reader. So don’t burn out on it. In fact, consider drafting a few supplements before working on the personal statement. You might find you have a change of mind about what to write or how to approach the prompts.

And as much as English teachers and essay specialists can be great reviewers for the purpose of checking mechanics and other less content-based aspects of the essay, don’t count on them for nuances related to the personality of the institution or for knowledge of specific programs unless they have fairly recently visited the institution or have direct knowledge of specifics to which you are referring.  You’re on your own for content in this case unless you can tap into the expertise of someone who has regular contact with colleges and universities—your school counselor or an independent educational consultant.

The copy and paste function can be a handy tool, and it can save you time if you use it wisely. But as much as it can help save time, it also has the potential to kill your essay.

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