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.

Checklisted childhoods

Julie Lythcott-Haims isn’t just a former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford and the author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success. She’s also a parent herself, one who openly admits that at the same time in her life when she first began chastising Stanford parents for hovering over their kids, she also caught herself doing the same thing with her own young children. I think that’s why her advice resonates so much with me, and why I share her as a source so often here. She knows the difficulties, the grey areas, the uncertainties a parent can face. But she’s also seen Stanford freshmen, some of the world’s brightest and most accomplished 18-year-olds, who were unable to face even the most common of daily challenges without calling Mom or Dad for instructions.

This recent Time article, adapted from her book mentioned above, shares Julie’s story of how she came to the realization that someone needed to speak out against what she had seen for herself as a harmful parenting practice. If this passage below resonates with you, if you’re a parent who wants to step back but worries that doing so will put your student at a disadvantage, I hope you’ll give both the article and the book a read.

“… I’m here to tell you—warn you—that this way of parenting is harmful to kids, to parents, to us all. You know it, I know it. We all know it. We see our children withering under the pressure of the checklisted childhood, feel ourselves struggling to keep up, and we imagine a different, saner way, exists elsewhere. Wyoming? Yet we look over our shoulder and see the galloping herd of other parents who are spending more money, hiring more help, taking more time off just to ensure their kid makes the grade, makes the cut, and gets admitted to that school over our kid, all the while bragging about their outcomes. We want to trust our instincts, wish we were brave enough to walk away, focus on family time not test prep, incite laughter, prompt joy, let our kids just be, but we fear the herd, and the short term win their kid will achieve with all that help. The overparenting herd has become a bully we feel the need to go along with.”

Stay the course

At the conclusion of our holiday break during our freshman year of college, my roommate Craig and I packed our duffel bags into his 1986 Toyota Celica and set off from our homes in the San Francisco Bay Area to return to our dorm at UC Irvine. The driving directions to do so looked something like this:

1. Take the 5 Freeway South for 500 miles.
2. Exit at Culver and turn right.

That’s it.

And we still managed to get lost.

About halfway to our destination, one of us suggested a possible shortcut. I don’t recall who came up with that bright idea, but I do remember us both embracing it enthusiastically. 90 minutes later, we were still so turned around on side streets that we had absolutely no idea where we were. By the time we got back to the freeway and resolved to literally and figuratively stay the course, we’d lost almost two hours of time. The illusive pursuit of a magical, undiscovered shortcut proved fruitless, which wasn’t surprising. Thousands and thousands of drivers had driven that route before us. If a better path existed, it would no longer have been a secret.

I would never tell a family to plod through the college admissions process like a laborious chore that just needs to be endured. There are both effective and ineffective ways to manage this time, and you can save yourself a lot of frustration and wasted effort by being thoughtful and seeking the right advice. When other people tell you that applying to college is stressful, difficult, demoralizing, etc., it’s likely that their approach—not the process itself—is what’s causing those problems.

But while you might hear that someone was admitted to their dream college because they applied under an obscure major, or connected with an admissions officer over email, or took some other seemingly simple but previously undiscovered shortcut to get there, like the long stretch of 5 freeway connecting Northern and Southern California, there is no universally foolproof, easier, faster way. If there were, someone would have discovered it already, plenty of others would have followed, and the secret would by now be the norm.

If you accept the reality that there is no secret passageway to the college of your dreams, you can stop the fruitless search that will only lead you to dead end side streets. Pick the right destinations for you, get good directions ahead of time, then stay the course.

A great college is…

If you’re a senior compiling your college list, focus on three things that make a college a great choice for you.

1. One where you can get in.
I’m not suggesting that any school that wouldn’t admit you simply isn’t a good choice. But much as a romantic interest isn’t your soul mate if the interest isn’t returned, a college isn’t a truly great choice unless it’s one that admits you. Make sure the bulk of your list is comprised of schools that will say yes.

2. One where you can be happy and successful.
I know this means looking into the future. But if you approach your college selection process with this metric in mind, you’ll move past things like rankings, what your friends tell you, and other factors that don’t actually measure the quality of a college for you.

3. One that you can afford.
You don’t know for sure whether or not you can afford a college until your financial aid package arrives. But as I’ve written before, affordability is part of fit. And a strong argument can be made that a college isn’t a great college for you if you end up taking on debt that will take you 30 years to pay off after you graduate.

Put another way, if you can’t get in, if you won’t be happy and successful once you’re there, and/or if you can’t pay for it, it’s not a great college. It might still earn a place on your list. But approaching your college search with these three elements in mind will ensure that you end up with plenty of great college options from which to choose.

A million dollars on the line

The next time you attend a class, show up to work, counsel a student, etc., imagine you and your cohorts were being silently observed and evaluated all day by a committee whose job was to decide who made the biggest impact that day. The best part? The winner gets a one million dollar prize.

Would you slouch through that class without raising your hand?

Would you do what’s asked at work, but nothing more?

Would you explain away a student’s concern about her college essay in a rush to get to your next appointment?

Not if there were a million dollars on the line. You’d spend the entire day leaning in, looking for ways to do better and to contribute more, to help not just yourself get ahead, but also those around you. After all, if you’re being measured on impact, why limit it to yourself? Spreading your best, most generous efforts around makes your impact grow, too.

What would happen if you spent today as if a million dollars were on the line? What if you did it again tomorrow? What if you made it a habit?

Imagine how things might change if your default were to show up as if a million dollars were on the line. There’s no playbook for being successful. But it’s hard to see how you could ever go wrong with this strategy.

Who’s it not for?

For private college counselors running your own shops, one of the keys to standing out and doing great work is deciding who you–and your expertise–isn’t for.

What kind of guidance or support can a potential customer request—and be perfectly willing to pay you for—that you’d politely decline and refer them to a competitor who’s a better fit?

I don’t mean a family who’s requesting a service that’s wildly out of your expertise, like asking you to tell them what kind of roofing to put on their house. I mean a family who wants a type of college advising that you have actively decided is not where you hang your professional hat.

Maybe a family has an athlete who’s hoping to be recruited, or a student who’s not that engaged in the college process and needs someone to light the fire, or parents who are primarily concerned about the cost of college and are hoping you can help secure financial aid and scholarships. It’s hard to imagine any counselor who could help all of those families equally well. And if you can’t do great work for a family, don’t they deserve to find someone who can? And don’t you deserve the opportunity to do your best work? Saying no gives you both that opportunity.

It’s temping when running any business to say yes to anyone who’s willing to pay you. You want to pay your bills. You want to earn a living. You want to grow your business. Why shouldn’t you say yes, especially in the early stages, if all it will mean is a little extra work and learning on your part?

But saying yes to everyone is a path to owning a business that’s just like all the others. Deciding who your work isn’t for is step one to creating a business people talk about.

Imagine the wedding photographer who says, “I’m sorry, but I don’t shoot outdoor weddings.”

Imagine the caterer who says, “I’m sorry, I don’t cater events for more than 15 people.”

Imagine the accountant who says, “I’m sorry, I don’t work on taxes for people who aren’t business owners.”

Now the photographer can focus on becoming so good at servicing the unique needs of her clients that she becomes known as the one you call when your wedding will be indoors.

The caterer can put his energies into becoming the one in town that people talk about because of the show he put on for their dinner party.

The accountant can become the one in town that small business owners talk about because she helped them make their businesses more financially sound.

Sure, you’ll still need to do great work to stand out. You’ll need to create experiences for your customers so remarkable that they can’t help but talk about you. But it’s a lot easier to do that for a smaller segment than it is to do it for everyone. And the first step towards identifying your smaller segment is to decide which members of the larger segment just shouldn’t hire you.

If you have trouble deciding, consider three things.

1. Who’s your ideal customer, the person who’s predisposed to be thrilled with what you do and how you do it?

2. Are there enough of those people to sustain your business?

3. And most importantly, what could you learn, do, and provide to that group that would make them feel like you’d created the perfect service for them, one that understood their desires, fears, and hopes for their college process?

Now, who doesn’t fit in that group?

To find the groups that will buy, appreciate, and talk about your best work, start by deciding who your service isn’t for.

Just showing up

“Just showing up” can have both positive and negative connotations.

When parents go to back-to-school night, when a student attends the extra help sessions their calculus teacher offers at lunch, when a counselor stays late at a conference because the last session offered just might help their students, just showing up is everything. You didn’t have to be there. There’s no guarantee that showing up will actually help you. But because you care enough, because you’re invested in the outcomes, you’re there. Once you’ve opted to clear that hurdle, you’re likely to do what you need to do to make that decision pay off in some way. Just showing up is the hard part.

But when a parent spends most of their son’s football game scrolling through their phone, when a student sits listlessly in their English class waiting for the sweet release of the bell, when a counselor begrudgingly attends an in-service day and generates more eye-rolls than they do notes, you’re there, but you’re not invested. And if you’re there out of obligation, just showing up is the easy part.

Which kind of just showing up are you doing?

What happens here, and no place else?

What if the next time you toured a college, or attended a college’s presentation at your school, or visited a college fair, you asked the school’s representative to tell you a story about something that happens at that college that would not happen anywhere else?

Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant advises that job applicants ask potential employers this question about their workplaces, and I thought it was just genius. An employer (or a college) can’t duck that question with a long list of generalities. To really answer it, they’ll need to tell you a story about something specific that just doesn’t happen anywhere else.

“You get a lot of interaction with professors here.” Not a good answer. You can get that at plenty of other schools, too.


“For 20 years at the beginning of every finals week, our Nobel Prize-winning chemistry professor has cooked breakfast for her students at her house. Her banana nut pancakes are absolutely legendary on campus. Students who aren’t even chemistry majors ask if they can attend just to taste for themselves.”

Now you’ve got something specific.

P.S. Good lesson for college essays, too.

Parents, let them have their big days

DayCampDay1This week, my wife and I did something we’ve never done before—we dropped our two-and-a-half-year-old son off at day camp.

Not with Grandma and Grandpa, not with a trusted babysitter we—and he—knew, but a group environment with 30 other 2-7 year-olds he’d never met, supervised by adults who’d only learned his name just minutes before.

As we were leaving, we looked back to see him across the playground waving good bye to us from the sandbox, knowing he would spend the nine hours there in the care of people we, too, had just met. I swear I felt like we were abandoning him and that Child Protective Services would soon be investigating us.

I’ve spent every day of the last eight years writing about—among other things—the need for parents to step back and support their kids without hovering. And I’ve spent every day of the last two-and-a-half years seeing for myself just how hard that can be to do. It feels good to know that our kids are under our watchful eyes, protected from disappointment and failure and discomfort. And there are times when loving them unconditionally does in fact mean providing a certain amount of cover from things they just aren’t yet equipped to handle. That’s why we hold our toddlers’ hands when they cross the street.

But as our babies become toddlers, toddlers become children, and children become teenagers, the best thing we can do in support of our kids is to regularly let go of those hands so our kids can live, experience, and learn for themselves, not to put them in harm’s way, but to put them in life’s way. It’s not easy. It might not even feel like good parenting at the time. But it’s exactly what our kids need from us, whether they’re attending a day camp or completing a college application.

When we arrived back at the day camp at 5 p.m., our boy ran across the playground to greet us, full of stories of snacks and naps and everything else he’d just experienced.

I told him it sounded like he’d had a good day. And he replied, “Yeah. It was a big day!”

We’ve got to let them have their big days, even if those are some of the hardest days for us.

Would you make the list?

Seth Godin’s been hosting some interesting videos on Facebook Live (all archived here), one of which included an exercise about how to stand out.

You’re sitting at a table with 12 people who are part of a cohort and everyone is asked to take out a piece of paper. You’re each now given the opportunity to write down the names of three people who will join you on a team, one that will be given the most exciting projects to work on, along with all the associated privileges and benefits if you succeed together.

Of the other 12 people at the table, how many do you think would instantly decide to write down your name?

There are two points to the exercise:

1. If you come to work or to school and consistently are the person everybody would put down on their piece of paper, you will be making an impact. You’ll be standing out. You’ll be the indispensable person they would miss if you were gone. And those people are always in high demand. Your future (and your present) is bright.

2. Whether or not you are that person is a choice you get to make. It’s not about competition. It’s not about being granted authority. It’s about making the decision that you will consistently be a generous, reliable, positive leader that people want to work with because of what you do every day.

Are you that person? In your English class, in the drama club, on the hockey team?

Are you that counselor in your office, that teacher in your department, that administrator at your school?

Are you that coworker, that parent, that volunteer?

Wherever you’re working today, if they sat the group at the table and did this exercise, would you make the list?

And if not, here are two past posts with some suggestions to help you make the next round.

Five people you want to work with

How to be a leader without a leadership position