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Critique of The Job I Should Have Quit, a College Admissions Personal Essay

Discussion of an essay by Drew for the Common Application

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Here I'll discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Drew's college admissions personal essay, "The Job I Should Have Quit."

The significant experience topic on the Common Application raises unique issues that are discussed in these 5 writing tips. Like all college admissions essays, however, essays for Common Application option #1 must accomplish a specific task: they must be written clearly and tightly, and they must provide evidence that the writer has the intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness and the strength of character necessary to be a contributing and successful member of the campus community.

Okay, on to Drew's essay . . .

The Title

Drew's title is rather straight-forward, but it is also quite effective. We immediately want to know why Drew should have quit this job. We also want to know why he didn't quit the job. Also, the title captures a key element of Drew's essay -- Drew is not writing about a great success he had, but a personal failure. His approach carries with it a little risk, but it is also a refreshing change from all the essays about how great the writer is.

The Topic

Most applicants think they have to make themselves look super-human or infallible in their essays. The admissions folks read scores of essays on "significant events" in which the writer describes a winning touchdown, a brilliant moment of leadership, a perfectly executed solo, or the happiness brought to the less-fortunate by an act of charity.

Drew does not go down this predictable road. At the heart of Drew's essay is a failure -- he acted in a way that did not live up to his personal ideals. He chose convenience and self-advancement over his values, and he emerges from his ethical dilemma thinking he did the wrong thing.

One could argue that Drew's approach to the essay is foolish. Does a top college really want to admit a student who so easily compromises his values?

But let's think of the issue differently. Does a college want to admit all those students whose essays present them as braggarts and egoists? Drew's essay has a pleasing level of self awareness and self criticism. We all make mistakes, and Drew owns up to his. He is disturbed by his decision, and his essay explores his inner conflicts. Drew is not perfect -- none of us are -- and he is refreshingly up front about this fact. Drew has room to grow and he knows it.

Also, Drew's essay isn't just about his faulty decision. It also presents his strengths -- he is passionate about mechanical engineering and has been for most of his life. The essay succeeds in showing off his strengths at the very time it examines his weaknesses.

Essay option #1 often leads to a bunch of predictable and conventional essays, but Drew's will stand out from the rest of the pile.

The Tone

Drew is a fairly serious and introspective guy, so we don't find much humor in his essay. At the same time, the writing isn't too heavy. The opening description of Drew's closet and the repeated mention of mowing lawns add a little lightness to the writing.

Most importantly, the essay manages to convey a level of humility that is refreshing. Drew comes across as a decent person, someone who we'd like to get to know better.

The Writing

Drew's essay has been carefully edited and revised. It contains no glaring problems with grammar and style. The language is tight and the details are well chosen. The prose is tight with a good variety of sentence structure. Immediately Drew's essay tells the admissions folks that he is in control of his writing and ready for the challenges of college-level work.

Drew's piece comes in around 730 words. The admissions officers have thousands of essays to process, so we want to keep the essay short. Drew's response gets the job done effectively without rambling on. The admissions folks are unlikely to lose interest. Like Carrie's essay, Drew's keeps it short and sweet.[Note: Drew wrote this essay in 2010, before the 500-word length limit; with the current guidelines, he would need to cut out a third of the essay]

Final Thoughts

As you write your essay, you should think about the impression you leave your reader with. Drew's does an excellent job on this front. Here's a student who already has great mechanical ability and a love for engineering. He is humble and reflective. He is willing to take risks, and even risks critiquing the source of funding for some college professors. We leave the essay understanding Drew's values, his doubts and his passions.

Most importantly, Drew comes across as the type of person who has a lot to gain from college as well as a lot to contribute. The admissions personnel are likely to want him to be part of their community.

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