Cắn bút, múa bút - những điều cần biết khi viết essay vào đại học Mỹ (phần pre-0)

Phần pre-0: That cruel essay - how much does it matter?

Cà phê đặc quánh, ngọn đèn cheo chóc, mắt đỏ ngầu trước màn hình máy tính, nghiến răng trước bài essay đáng nguyền rủa. Và bạn tự hỏi mình, bao nhiêu thời gian, bao nhiêu công sức, liệu có đáng không?


Cuộc chơi: Admission to college

Luật chơi 1: "A great essay could heal the sick but couldn't raise the dead." - Jim Miller, Bowdoin adcom.


Quả thực như vậy. Luật chơi quan trọng nhất bạn cần nhớ: GPA là yếu tố quan trọng nhất. Không trường đại học nào sẽ đánh giá essay cao hơn điểm tổng kết cấp 3. Thực tế, GPA chiếm 30% trong quyết định lựa chọn vào đại học. Yếu tố quan trọng thứ hai là SAT/ACT (ngoại trừ các trường thi SAT/ACT là vấn đề tự chọn như Bates). Thế nhưng, essay helps more than it hurts. Giống như chiếc váy đẹp sẽ làm một người phụ nữ đẹp trở nên lộng lẫy, một bài văn hay sẽ khiến hồ sơ của bạn nổi bật. Thế nhưng, chiếc váy đẹp không thể cứu vãn Thị Nở; nếu điểm tổng kết của bạn đáng vứt vào sọt rác thì dù một mình essay có hay đến mấy cũng không thể đảo ngược tình thế được. Ngược lại, nếu điểm số chênh vênh, bài văn hay có thể vực bạn lên, "saving the sick."


Ở những trường liberal art colleges, essay chiếm nhiều vai trò hơn public university. Hơn nữa, đây là phàn duy nhất của hồ sơ mà bạn có toàn quyền chỉ huy, toàn quyền viết và định đoạt. Từ văn chuơng của bạn, adcom sẽ nghe được giọng nói và con người bạn, không chỉ đơn thuần là "that 1300 SAT, 3.5 GPA kid."


1. From the Admissions Officers: WEIGHTING THE ESSAY

-The most compelling essay must be accompanied by the rest of the "package."

    Alyssa Sinclair, assistant director of admissions at Middlebury College

-There are essays that are compelling, that make the difference. So students should know that essays should be taken seriously. If a student puts effort into essays, they should help his or her chances. The remarkable thing about essays is that there's no ceiling on quality, unlike SAT scores or GPAs. A great essay can carry a student. A poorly done essay might do the opposite. It can certainly determine the initial path an application takes through the process. We start at the beginning. The first sentence is read carefully, then the first paragraph is closely read, and then it's open-ended from there . . . if it's high quality, we'll examine everything. The very first sentence should accomplish a lot . . . the essays I remember do that-similar to a short story. Some students don't dive right in; they try to set up their case, crafting what turns out to be dry prose. They don't have time to do that.

    John Latting, director of admissions at Johns Hopkins University


2. Can an essay move an application from the "maybe" pile to the "accept" pile? From the "maybe" pile to the "reject" pile?

-An essay can swing a vote either way, but other factors in an application come into play as well.

    Jennifer Wong, director of admissions at Claremont McKenna College

-In our process, a compelling essay can keep an applicant in contention, but if the rest of the application falls short, then a great essay will not be enough.


-Essay alone won't do it. We look for more personal contact, a visit to the institution, recommendations.

    Rob Moore, assistant director of admissions at the United States Coast Guard Academy

- An essay alone will not get a student into Williams, no matter how exquisitely it is written. The essay is an important part of the gestalt that is each application. The academic foundation is essential for an application to be viable. Such extras as a strong essay, strong prose support from teachers and peers, and a powerful extracurricular profile are compelling reasons to take one applicant over another equally qualified applicant.

    Matthew Swanson, assistant director of admissions at Williams College


3. If you have an applicant with lower numbers but a great essay, what do you do?

- If a student hasn't done too well in school but writes a great essay, that student should give us other writing that backs up the essay. We expect a lot from the essay, but one of the reasons that we welcome other writing is all the hype surrounding the essay. Sometimes the essay is not the applicant's best writing because they might write what they believe we want.

    Virginia Harrison, associate dean of admissions at Bates College

- Confirm that [the] essay is not an anomaly. Go to their school and ask about their writing.

    Jim Miller, dean of admissions at Bowdoin College

- It might give the student a slight bump up. Depends on the essay.

    Claremont McKenna

-We read the rest of the application and make a decision based on everything, not on individual parts.

    Lorne T. Robinson, dean of admissions and financial aid at Macalester College

-If a student has scores below our averages but rank-in-class and GPA that suggest real academic talent, then a strong essay can be a help to the applicant. If all the academic indicators suggest that a student is not a strong candidate for Middlebury, then even a very strong essay will not result in an admit.


- If the student's application is borderline and the writing is excellent, we might well give them the benefit of the doubt and ask the student to interview or submit an extra quarter or semester of grades or other materials. If it is early in the cycle, we will set aside the application and counsel the student to do whatever it takes to present information that will allay our concerns regarding academic success at the college.

    Joel Bauman, dean of admissions at New College of Florida

-We'd have to look at everything. Grades are most important. It's rare that a good essay would overcome bad grades.

    Carol Lunkenheimer, dean of admissions at Northwestern University

- Numbers are only a small part-and essays are only small part.


-A weak academic record will prohibit an applicant from being admitted, no matter how strong their essay might be.

    Matthew Swanson, assistant director of admissions at Williams College


4. If an essay is particularly bad, but the student's grades are great, what then?

Bates: A student who is a very good student and has taken high-level English courses and has great recommendations as a writer-we have high expectations of that essay; the high numbers with the weak essay: the student has dropped the ball. The essay itself would never make the decision. An essay can hurt an applicant-if it's rushed, or if it's a copy of something else, if they tried to edit another paper and fit it into the applicant slot, it doesn't work.

Bowdoin: Go back to school or the kid and ask, What should we know?

Claremont McKenna: It might bump the student down. If a student hasn't put time and effort into the essay, we wonder how serious he or she is about us.

Macalester: Then the student may not be admitted.

Middlebury: If an essay is notable for its weakness, then both readers are likely to comment on its shortcomings and factor that into their recommendation to the committee. There are some very bright students who earn great grades but who don't put the care and effort into their applications that we expect. Those applicants don't fare well in our process. Essays can also be an indication of the level of instruction at a particular school. Unfortunately, some students have not been well instructed in terms of grammar and punctuation; we do try to keep a student's educational background in mind.

New College: A badly written essay can certainly tip the scale the wrong way. If a student's application is otherwise strong, we might place the student on our wait list or hold status and ask for another essay. Since this is not done formulaically, it's also possible that we would deny the student outright.

Williams: We turn down many students with great grades and test scores if it seems they are unlikely to contribute to the overall college community. Williams is lucky to have far more qualified applicants than spots in the class. We make our most difficult decisions among equally academically qualified applicants based on the other criteria in the application. The essay is certainly one of the factors considered, as is the strength and extent of that applicant's extracurricular or community involvement in high school. Scores and grades are most important. The essay won't bring them back. What the essay does is break ties. The most compelling will be admitted.

Yale: There's nothing so stellar about academic credentials that'll convince us to take him without looking at the rest. The transcript is certainly the single most important document. And the recommendations are very important. You know, we admit students who write flat essays and we reject students who write great essays. At a place like Yale, there just aren't that many kids that are so powerful that we have to take them. At many other institutions, you might not have the privilege of turning down a really strong student based on the tone of an essay. Here, we can do it.

(Quotes from princetonreview.com)


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