Should you take a risk in a college essay?

Students and parents ask us all the time if it's advisable to take a risk in a college essay.  Should you write about something controversial, or take on a subject that may offend the reader, or admit a mistake you made?

I usually tell students that if you're taking a risk in a college essay just to get noticed, that's probably not a good strategy.  But if you're taking a risk by telling the truth, standing up for what you believe in, or just admitting who you really are, even if it may paint you in a less than positive light, those tend to be admirable traits that colleges will appreciate.  Here's an example. 

We worked with a student last fall who had a clear, first-choice school that was a reach for him.  The school's essay question asked applicants to describe a situation in which you integrated critical thinking, intelligence, and character.  He had a great story to tell about a job interview in which he was asked if he were elected president, what would he do first to improve the economy.  He gave a thoughtful, informed answer about legalizing marijuana, and he got the job.  The interviewer even complimented him on how knowledgeable and honest he was.  

But would it be a good idea to actually admit that in his college essay?

When we talked with him about it, it was clear he was knowledgeable about the issue.  He'd read about it and even discussed it with several of his teachers.  And he wasn't even a drug user.  In fact, he also believed that as long as marijuana was illegal, people shouldn't use it.  But he had the guts to tell the truth in a job interview and it worked.  Why should he hide behind a safe answer when the truth would make for a much more interesting and compelling story?  And besides, do you have any idea how many "I chose not to cheat even though other
students did it" essays that admissions office has to read? 

So we told him to go for it.  Swing for the fences.  And today, he got his acceptance letter.

The point here is not that risky essays always win.  If you write an essay about how much you like to do drugs, that would be a stupid thing to do.

But you should still be yourself.  Have the guts to tell the truth. Don't be immature, but don't hide behind a safe answer that you don't really believe, either.