Reviewing essay drafts with seniors: how much help is too much?

Tis’ the season for college essay drafts—lots of them.  Seniors are attaching drafts to emails, delivering hard copies in person, and leaving papers on my chair when I step out for lunch.  While I can barely keep up with the filing and reviewing, I am proud of their energy and industry! 

Each year at this time, however, I am reminded of the need to re-focus my approach to reading and reviewing essay drafts.  Perhaps influenced by the multiple English teachers in my clan, I instantly want to grab the nearest red pen and start circling, commenting, correcting, and drawing arrows all over the page.  Then I reel myself in (“reboot” seems to be the new expression) and remind myself that is not my proper role.

How can adults (parents, teachers, guidance counselors and tutors) be of help?

 Moses Brown is a very caring school and we want to help students as much as is humanly possible.  But as a general rule of thumb when reviewing essays, less is more.  For myriad reasons, a light touch is far superior to heavy editing.

While it’s tempting to refine points of grammar, suggest a more vivid word, or reshape a sentence, I believe those invited to read essays should think in terms of queries rather than corrections.  My colleague David duKor-Jackson likes to distinguish between “macro” and “micro” editing.  Previously a director of admission in several settings, he is appropriately sensitive to adults crafting phrases and choosing vocabulary for students—as well as assorted other small changes on the “micro” level.  In keeping with our office philosophy, he favors a more “macro” approach that allows students to see the big picture associated with essay writing and maintain their own integrity as writers.

Providing a critique rather than supplying corrections

What kind of queries might adults offer to college applicants regarding essays?  Starting the conversation with a couple of basic questions is useful for seniors—and helps them direct their own review.

*How did you decide upon your essay topic?

*Are you satisfied and content with this draft?  Did it take shape easily when you wrote it?

*What do you see as the strong points of the essay?  Any areas where you struggled?  Do you have a sense of why you struggled?

When seniors request that a teacher or college advisor (or parent, older sibling, tutor) read a draft of the essay, they do so because trust the individual.  They also crave some concrete advice.  Here are a few “macro” queries that help students reflect on the content and structure of their writing:

*Consider the opening sentence and first paragraph of the essay.  Does it immediately pull the reader into the text? 

*How does the essay flow?  Is it easy for the reader (especially the often overworked, sleep-deprived admission officer) to follow the progression of the prose?

*Is the essay engaging and absorbing—maybe even difficult to put down?

 *Does the language sound like the student writer in the day to day? If the senior possesses a sense of humor…or a love of irony…or passion for cool words… do these characteristics emerge in the essay?

Final queries:

*Ultimately, does the draft feature the best topic?  (In the College Counseling Office, we collect a lot of anecdotal information from seniors and note that every student has several great possibilities to use when writing his or her short “memoir”.)  If an essay doesn’t seem to gather momentum, the reviewer might invite a discussion of the actual topic.  (When this happens, the student is often quick to reply: “I know…I had a hard time with it.”)  

*Is the overall essay well-crafted and soundly constructed?  Again, I re-emphasize the “less is more” theory.  I don’t think teachers, for example, should feel obligated to address every grammatical travesty.  I do think it’s okay to point out—in the margins or in a summary comment—that comma usage is an issue or there is a pattern of tenses not agreeing with subjects.  Then students take the lead with corrections.  (Encouraging each senior to read his or her draft aloud allows them to catch their own mistakes.  This strategy, while odd and “old school” for some students, works wonders.)

*Does the draft reach a conclusion?  Alas, the dreaded final paragraph is never easy—even for seasoned writers.  Sometimes students simply summarize points shared earlier in the essay.  In other instances, they employ a quick wrap-up to exit the text. As seniors approach the last lines, I advise them to think about their audience—and ask themselves “So why did I tell the reader all of the above?”  This seems to help. 

*My colleague David likes to ask one last question of students: Have you communicated what is essential for an admission office to know about you?  He adds: “This is your one opportunity to share who you are and distinguish yourself.”

Our philosophical message to students

As educators know too well, incidences of cheating and plagiarism are on the rise in schools and colleges.  This is a multi-layered phenomenon, complicated by the amount of easily accessible information on the internet and the preponderance of sophisticated cell phones.  Additionally, some students feel confused by the increasing number of collaborative projects in classrooms and laboratories; they report finding it difficult to distinguish between group intellectual property and individual intellectual property.

In the midst of all this confusion, adults need to be as straightforward and clear as possible in all situations.  In the college counseling orbit, I think our messages when editing must be very succinct.  Reconstructing a sentence for a student, suggesting a different term to describe a scene, or generating a conclusion is not productive.  The unintentional message becomes “it’s okay for someone else to write for you.” 

Finally, we need to keep in mind that when seniors complete the Common Application, they honor the following agreement with their signature:

I certify that all information submitted in the admission process—including the application, the personal essay, any supplements, and any other supporting materials—is my own work, factually true, and honestly presented…

My conclusion

So, back to my annual “rebooting”.  As drafts begin to cover my desk and chair, I will try hard to focus on the “macro” queries when I meet with students after reading their drafts.  I recommit to less of my ink on the page—or red inserts on screen.  I may write in the margin “this paragraph seems to ramble” or “the reader may be confused by the sequence here”—but I will not run wild with comments and insertions.  Most importantly, I remind myself that essays are called “personal statements” for a reason.  By their very nature, they are different from classroom assignments and should be reviewed accordingly.  Each student needs to write his or her story, in her own voice, in his own way. 



College reps return for the season…

Last week marked the official start of visits to our office  by members of college admission staffs.  While they add a layer of busyness to our schedule, David, Jill and I are excited to greet them.  Some college reps have been visiting Moses Brown for years: many for a decade and several for twenty-five years!  We also look forward to greeting new admission officers (or those new to the Rhode Island territory) and learning about their backgrounds and experience.

Typically college reps converse with interested students for twenty to thirty minutes, depending upon the size of the group.  This provides an excellent opportunity for students to hear a general  overview of the college and campus–and then ask their own personalized follow-up questions.  I think meeting admission staff members often humanizes the application process for seniors, particularly because the vast majority of deans are warm, friendly, interested, good-humored and helpful professionals.  Admission reps like the company of adolescents and understand that the application process can be stressful. 

After students have met with our visitors, David and I have a chance to chat with each one and catch up on developments on campuses.  Sometimes we learn about new academic programs.  Swarthmore, for example, is expanding their Arabic language and culture program, while Muhlenberg has granted Jewish Studies status as a major.  Other times we discuss capital changes on campus, such as Georgetown’s state-of-the-art science classrooms and the Honors complex scheduled to open at UMass/Amherst in 2013.  In the spirit of reciprocity, David and I enjoy telling our visitors about relevant changes to the curriculum and campus at MB. 

Colleges are very mindful of sustainability efforts, and it’s fascinating to hear about initiatives and innovations on various campuses.  Guilford College, a Quaker affiliated institution in North Carolina, has installed 200 solar panels on residence halls.  The cardio equipment in their new fitness center additionally generates energy for the campus!  While the community is manageable in size, Guilford students like to bike to class and activities.  The College sponsors a shop called “Re:cycles”; students may rent a bike inexpensively or get a basic tune up for free.  “Sustainability is one of our core values,” explained the rep.

Advancements in technology on college campuses are also fascinating.  At High Point University (NC), the School of Education utilizes smart boards and smart tables.   (The surface of the latter looks like a big iPad.) During an update regarding the new East Campus Student Services complex at Boston University, David and I learned about experimental fingerprint  touch pads that may replace i.d. cards for entering BU buildings.  (Truthfully, we were a bit distracted by the description of the basement cafe in the new East Campus facility on Bay State Road; evidently chocolate fondue is served there in the late evening.  David and I may have to draw straws on the next visit to BU to explore.) 

College reps who visit MB share a lot of great practical information.  They describe early decision programs, majors, co-curriculars, athletic records, costs,  financial aid procedures and internship possibilities. However, the philosophical insights they share with seniors are equally important.  “Our new President wants you to find your calling,” reported our Wittenberg University rep.  “We’re all about the fit,” shared an admission dean from a small college in Pennsylvania.  “We want students to have more hands on experiences as they think about their futures.  Their portfolio has to speak,”  emphasized another dean from a smaller institution.   

The blend of practical and philosophical insights makes college rep meetings thoughtful and valuable–both for seniors and their college advisors.  Plus, the notion of chocolate fondue warming in a college bistro makes the  busy day a bit sweeter.

by Helen Scotte Gordon

How I spent my summer vacation…

I’m pretty sure that I enjoy summer as much as my upper school students.  I am particularly fond of activities that start with “B”: beach, book, bike and barbecue.  Thanks to MB’s Global Fund, I also add beginner/intermediate Spanish; I was fortunate to study for a week at a language institute in Costa Rica. 

In my role as a college advisor, I’m glad to spend the first chunk of summer away from deadlines, voluminous emails and research in Naviance. (Sorry about that, Jill Stockman!)  But then I miss thinking about the issues that fascinate me in my profession…and I enjoy selecting a college or two to visit in a totally relaxed manner.

Last spring I met the wonderful new president of the College of the Atlantic at a conference.  He encouraged me to come up and spend some time on campus.  Next COA’s director of admission issued a very thoughtful and formal invitation…and soon enough my husband and I were packing up for a trip to Mount Desert Island.  As you will read below, we spent two memorable days at this remarkable college.  


On Human Ecology, Frenchman Bay, Fresh Scones and a Literary Guinea Pig

The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, is not obsessed with numbers.  The one lecture hall on campus seats only about forty students.  The Admission Office does not require applicants to submit test results.  Undergraduates are known by their first names—not by their id number. 

Relationships and connections figure prominently in the COA community.  Students, faculty and staff who join this institution genuinely want to interact with each other in the face-to-face—and engage in meaningful, personalized and in-depth academic explorations. 

This belief in relationship and interaction exists at the core of all that the College of Atlantic does.  It is also one of the reasons there is only one major offered at the school: Human Ecology.  Just in case this sounds unusual or even bizarre, allow me to explain.  This shared major is essentially another name for “liberal arts and science”—a cluster that has traditionally focused on an exploration of the human condition.  While all COA students earn a degree in Human Ecology, they design their own concentrations in many other areas—from art to business to marine biology.  Here is an excerpt from the campus mission statement: “A human ecological perspective integrates knowledge from all academic disciplines and from personal experience to investigate, and ultimately improve, the relationships between human beings and our social and natural communities.”  (Does anyone else hear echoes of our Quaker philosophy at Moses Brown?)

By the numbers

The College of the Atlantic is clearly more about nuance than numbers.  But I cannot resist quoting a few statistics that are impressive, unusual—and even whimsical.  Here goes:


number of graduates who have received a prestigious Watson scholarship during the 40 year history of the College (similar to Rhodes, Truman and Fulbright awards, Watson Scholarships represent highly selective grants)


COA was recently cited as one of the 16 “greenest” colleges in America


terms per year; 3 classes each trimester (students may choose to receive either grades or comments in their courses each term)

26 knots

maximum speed of Osprey, the new 46 foot Wesmac Cruiser launched by COA for student research in marine biology, ornithology, oceanography and related areas


cost of one ample portion of leftovers from the dining room (which features fresh, delicious food) to save for a midnight snack or weekend stash


total undergraduates


Interdisciplinary courses, from “Biology through the Lens” to an 8 student “Autobiography” seminar


members of the Eco League college exchange of which COA is a part, including Alaska Pacific College and Prescott College (AZ) 

.5 mile

distance to the shops, restaurants and galleries of Bar Harbor village


caps and gowns worn at graduation to avoid waste


elk on campus: a life size replica sculpted in metal by artist Wendy Klemperer


cool courses offered within the curriculum, including “Witches and Witchcraft”, “Penguins to Polar Bears: Journeys across the Ice” and “Corn and Coffee” (a history of Guatemala through two vital products)

“Firsts” for Scotte

I travel to many campuses every year for Moses Brown and revel in exploring each complex community and sociological entity.  I’m particularly delighted when an unusual amenity or service for students captures my attention.  A creative and innovative institution, COA kept me busy with new discoveries:

*I particularly enjoyed meeting “Steinbeck”, the guinea pig, who resides in a cozy cage in the lobby of the library.  He is available for pet therapy at any time and seems to relish the attention.

*COA students may also check out a “happy light” from the front desk to counter the effects of dark winter days in New England.  For added seasonal fun, the College installs an outdoor skating rink on campus. 

*The newest dorms at COA feature many advanced green technologies.  The residential village in which we stayed is heated via a wood pellet system; the toilets in the handsome hall bathrooms are of the composting variety.  (Don’t get the wrong idea here!  The toilets themselves look like any standard, modern fixture.  However, they do not depend upon gallons of water to flush–instead the user deposits a scoop of fresh wood chips when closing the lid.)  No muss, no fuss. 

*Vending machine offerings are enlightened at COA.  In the informal café, students can purchase yogurt, applesauce, Maine root beer and other healthy snacks.    

*COA students tend to value exercise and enjoy the outdoors.  While competitive sports are not emphasized (although the campus does display a fondness for cricket!), each student receives a yearly membership to the local YMCA.  Many students cross the street to access hiking trails and bike paths in Acadia National Park.   (A shuttle subsidized by L.L. Bean actually stops on the COA campus to pick up those who wish free delivery to numerous points on Cadillac Mountain.  Just pop your bike on the rack in the front or back of the bus.)     

Why consider such a small school?

College of the Atlantic operates on an intimate scale: 350 students, to be exact.   MB students might protest: “But that’s smaller than our upper school!”  While that is true, it is important to note that a small college population is inherently different from a day school similar in size.   There are simply more types of people, expanded opportunities, a larger faculty and staff, and travel/internship options on even the smallest campuses.

I’ve been thinking about the insight offered by my superb tour guide.  A sophomore transfer to COA, she spent her freshman year at college with about 2,000 students—but was surprised by the large nature of several of her classes.  “Lecture style was not the kind of learning I was looking for,” she explained.  She has never regretted her decision to join the COA community. 

Colleges with less than 1,000 students are certainly not for everyone.  But more students should surrender their assumptions and closely look at what they offer—especially the quality of instruction and “human ecology” present on these campuses. 

Summary: local flavors, musical notes and a spectacular view

I would be remiss if I did not close this blog entry with a tribute to the cuisine at COA.  I have never enjoyed better on a campus.  Fresh muffins, scones and cookies daily!  Fruits and veggies from an organic farm just down the road! Salmon grilled perfectly for lunch!  Heavenly.   The overall hospitality was wonderful in every way.

Similarly, the view of Frenchman Bay from the campus deserves special mention.  (I noted the college president keeps a set of binoculars on his desk!)  COA offers a fabulous setting in which to study, genuinely get to know faculty and students, participate in sustainability efforts, watch a sunset from the pier, plan a term or two abroad, eat healthily and well—and play with a guinea pig when you need a pet fix.   “COA is a great base camp,” aptly summarized my tour guide.

A last note for fellow music buffs: I was lucky to visit COA the same week the College sponsored their annual “Samba Meets Jazz” institute.  The teaching faculty included several distinguished performers who specialize in Brazilian jazz, including Leny Andrade (known as the Ella Fitzgerald of Brazil), Nilson Mata (bass), Ronie Ben-Hur(guitar), Matt King (piano) and “Café” (drums and percussion).  My husband and I attended a concert featuring the professional musicians one evening—and listened to their students perform the next night.  The experience was unforgettable.