College essays: give admissions officers what they really want

My dad forwarded me a recent New York Times article about “conquering” the college essay. The author knows what she’s talking about. She read applications at Duke, she authored a book about her experience there, and today she’s a professor of creative writing. The advice is sound, and I did enjoy—and agree with—her pithy observation that many essays sound the same—“baseball = life, or debate = life,” or “I went to a developing country and discovered poor people can be happy.”

But she left out what I believe is the single most important piece of college essay advice, the guidance that, if you follow it, will help you choose stories that will resonate, write them in an original way, and avoid many of the most common mistakes, clichéd topics, and other essay gaffes.

Just be honest.

It sounds so deceptively simple that it’s easy to misinterpret. The truth is that there is a lot of lying in college essays. I don’t mean that applicants fabricate facts or entire stories (though some certainly do). I mean that they inject meaning and gravity and perspective that wasn’t there when the events occurred, all in the name of writing what they think admissions officers want to read.

Take the examples above, starting with “baseball = life.” I can’t tell you how many students write about an activity and claim that it taught them important life lessons. Yes, playing baseball could very well have involved some hard work and goal setting. But then those applicants write sentences like, “Baseball taught me the importance of hard work and committing to your goals.”

Really? You had no idea that hard work and committing to your goals was important? Was baseball really your first instruction to that concept? I—and most admissions officers—find that hard to believe. It’s not an egregious lie like falsely claiming you pitched a no-hitter and won the championship. But you’re not being honest, either.

If your essay claims that speech and debate taught you how important it is to face your fears in life, you’ve just added all sorts of meaning to that experience that almost certainly wasn’t there. Did speech and debate really introduce you to that perspective? You’re saying that all those stories of underdogs facing their fears never stuck with you until you did speech and debate? I’ve certainly never heard a teenager utter a phrase like that in conversation. So why include it in your college essay?

The “I discovered while traveling that poor people can also be happy” essay is another eye-roller for admissions officers. Was that trip really the first time you became aware of this? Did you really have no idea that people who don’t have a lot of money can still find personal happiness?

I know this may sound flippant or dismissive of teenagers and their admissions efforts, but I mean it to be the opposite. You are not a cliché. You are an interesting, complex, human teenager who’s living through a period of your life that virtually every adult can relate to at some level, and that every admissions officer I’ve ever met genuinely wants to know more about.

Now, let’s inject some honesty into those previous examples.

My baseball coach really has been like a father figure to me. My dad hasn’t been in my life since my parents got divorced ten years ago. But when I needed a ride to our playoff games because my mom was working, when I needed a reference to apply for a job at the local supermarket, and when I needed to know what the heck a corsage was before I took a date to my first formal dance at school, Coach Hanson was there for me.

As a reader, you’ve got my attention. I’m all in. And you did it without some ridiculous hook. All you had to do was just be honest.

I’m not the most confident person. I’m shy and I have a hard time meeting new people. That’s why I always hated going to summer camp as a kid. I felt like the only one there who still didn’t have a camp crew to run with after the first week of being there. But at a debate competition, I’m a different person. I speak confidently. It doesn’t matter how many unfamiliar people are watching me. I’m never flustered. In fact, I’m in the zone. Speech and debate isn’t just the place where I’m at my best. It’s also where I’m the most at ease. I really like the person I am on that stage. And I like that other people do, too.

Doesn’t honesty work just fine there?

I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly excited to be away from my friends for two weeks to dig ditches in Costa Rica. But since I came back, I haven’t shut up about it. I’ve told all of my friends that they should do it, too. My time there changed me. I have a good life, an easy life, which my teenage mind didn’t appreciate nearly as much as I should have. I think my parents would tell you that I voice a lot fewer complaints these days about things like having to mow the lawn or not being able to stay out as late as I’d like. And I’ve started volunteering once a week at the local food bank, which is honestly the best four hours I spend on my Saturdays. None of those things were true six weeks ago. And I have my experience in Costa Rica to thank for it.

I can’t speak to whether or not that applicant might have had an even better story to tell. But the honest version of these events resonates a lot more than a puffed up version would have.

I’m not suggesting that you should necessarily emulate my examples here, or even that these particular sentiments are what you should try to express. Your college essays should sound like you. But—and here we go again—the only way to sound like you is to be honest.

Admissions officers want to get to know you better. They want to learn what makes this human applicant who’s more than just a collection of grades and test scores tick. And most importantly, they want the 17-year-old teenager’s version of the events. They don’t want your attempt to impress them. They really want you to be honest.

To write a great college essay, give them what they really want.