Not like all the others

One of my college friends is a firefighter who was recently recruited by his chief to help craft a mission statement for the department. He went through many drafts, each of which included making the chief’s suggested changes and additions. Then he sent it to me for editing to make sure that it read well.

I told him the truth. It reads fine if you want it to read like every other mission statement.

Mission statements, like so many pieces of writing that will be shared publicly, tend to all sound the same. They’re full of jargon like “We will aspire to achieve excellence in all endeavors, to communicate with transparency, and to provide our customers with the highest standards of service.”

Sure, those words technically mean something. But will they move anyone? Will a single person act or think differently about the organization after reading them? Or will they just be words that hang on a wall and allow the organization to say, “We have a mission statement”?

I wrote him back with some suggested edits that maintained the standard, formal tone it was clear his chief was comfortable with. But I also gave him a complete revision I titled, “Kevin’s Version the Chief Will Never Approve.”

Here are three samples of the revisions:

Their version:

Responsiveness
We respond in a safe and rapid manner to all emergency calls for service. Additionally, we are committed to providing timely and accurate information and resources in all matters affecting our stakeholders.

My rewrite:

Responsiveness
We answer every call to serve—emergency or otherwise—as quickly and safely as possible.

Their version:

Duty
We choose service over self.  We are stewards of public trust and champion what is best for our community.

My Rewrite:

Duty
Community, department, self. In that order.

Their version:

Integrity
We are accountable for our actions, celebrate our successes, and look to our failures as opportunities for growth. We are committed to the standards of the organization, always working to “do the right thing.” 

My rewrite:

Integrity
We take responsibility for our actions and our results. We will do the right thing, not the easy thing.

I know the chief will never go for my version, but I took a swing anyway. Sometimes people assume that a piece of writing must sound the same as all the others. It doesn’t, especially if you want it to work.

You can improve almost any piece of writing, from an email, to a mission statement, to a college essay, by:

  • Getting right to the point.
  • Writing as if you were speaking to another person.
  • Removing unnecessary words.

Do those things, and your writing won’t sound like all the others.

Here’s a past post profiling my favorite book on how to improve your writing.

Short answer essay help is here

College essays don’t just come in the form of the longer 600-word personal statements. Many colleges’ applications also serve up prompts requiring as few as 150-300 words on topics like why you’ve chosen to apply to that college, what you learned from a failure or mistake, and which activity has had the most meaning for you. When handled well, these shorter essays give applicants multiple opportunities to share more about themselves in ways that the rest of the application—and the longer essay—have not yet revealed.

If you’re working through or about to start writing your short answer essays, we’ve still got some spaces in tonight’s webinar:

The Art of the Short Answer 
How to write effective responses to those short answer prompts on applications
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. (PDT)

Our Collegewise presenters, Nandita and Tom, read thousands of applications at Stanford and Colorado College respectively. They’re both excellent teachers, and they’ll not only help you understand the intent behind these short answer questions, but also help you find and tell your best stories. If you can’t attend live, we’ll be sharing the recording for two weeks following the webinar, but only with those who register. I hope you can join us.

Two upcoming free webinars

Students, parents, and counselors, we’ve got two excellent free webinars coming up featuring four of our Collegewise counselors who’ve collectively read tens of thousands of applications during their time as admissions officers at Harvard, Stanford, Caltech, University of Chicago, and Colorado College. Click into the links below to register. We hope to see you there. And if you can’t attend but want the information, please register anyway—we’ll share the recording for up to two weeks after the event, but only with those people who register.

How to Make Your Common App a Lot Less Common
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. (PDT)

The Art of the Short Answer
How to write effective responses to those short-answer prompts on applications
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. (PDT)

Kill the clichés

From a recent New York Times piece, “Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers”:

“Kill the clichés. If you want to give the reader an outside the box perspective on how to solve a problem from hell by reimagining the policy toolbox to include stakeholder voices — well, stop right there. Editors notice these sorts of expressions the way French chefs notice slices of Velveeta cheese: repulsive in themselves, and indicative of the mental slop that lies beneath.”

A cliché is an expression of a common thought or idea that has been so overused that it no longer has any originality or impact. “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game” is a cliché. So is “The early bird catches the worm” and “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” While there is often truth in clichés, everything from the sentiment itself to the actual sentence has just been worn out.

While a college admissions officer may not react to a cliché in your essay quite as harshly as a French chef would to processed cheese, clichés will chip away at your ability to stand out. You and your experiences are more interesting and complex than a trite, over-used phrase like, “If I put my mind to it, I can accomplish anything.”

The surest way to avoid college essay clichés is to stop asking yourself, “What will sound good?” That question leads applicants to inject meaning that wasn’t there and to extract life lessons from experiences that were rich enough without adding a moral to the story. Instead, just be honest. Share the details of the experience that help you own your story. And if you wouldn’t say those words to someone else, don’t write them in your college essay.

Collegewise advice: there’s a video for that

If you’re applying to college and would like some trusted advice from experts, our filmmaker has been capturing some of our counselors sharing their favorite tips. Here are four new videos, all of which are hosted on our YouTube channel.

Five College Essay Clichés to Avoid

Questions to Kickstart your Essay Brainstorm

Debunking College Essay Myths

Asking for Letters of Recommendation

Last call for my essay webinar

It’s officially last call for my webinar, How to Write a Great College Essay, on Tuesday, August 22 from 5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. PDT. I’ll be sharing tips that will help students write any college essay, from a personal statement, to short-answer questions, to Common App essays. Parents are certainly welcome to attend, too, and I hope doing so will help you feel confident that the surest way for an applicant to write an essay a college will enjoy reading is for the student—not Mom or Dad—to drive the story selection. Tickets are $10, and all the information is here.

Join us at an upcoming webinar

Collegewise is offering a series of webinars for students, parents, and counselors. The schedule and the links to register are below (I’ll be presenting the August 22 college essay session).

I hope you can join us.

Tuesday, August 22: How to Write a Great College Essay
Wednesday, September 20: How to Make Your Common App a Lot Less Common
Tuesday, October 17: The Art of the Short Answer
Wednesday, November 8It’s Not Too Late: How to Complete Stellar College Applications when Deadlines are Looming

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.

“Show, don’t tell…”

Fans of ABC’s Shark Tank, where investment-seeking entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to the cast of multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons (the sharks), have seen this scenario play out on the show. The sharks are interested, but on the fence, questioning if there’s enough potential in this business to earn their time, money, and attention. Sensing that he or she is at risk of losing their potential deal, the entrepreneur tries to tell the sharks what sets them apart.

“I’m relentless. I will not give up.”

“You won’t find someone who works harder than I do.”

“I am passionate about this!”

I’ve seen almost every episode of Shark Tank, but I’ve never seen any of these statements alone lure a shark to make an offer.

Persistence, hard work, and passion are prerequisites for entrepreneurial success. And just because you do those things doesn’t necessarily mean you have a viable business.

Would an NFL coach be swayed just because you claimed to practice hard?

Would a potential romantic partner be swayed just because you claimed to be a nice person?

Would a recruiter at Google or Apple be swayed just because you claimed to be passionate about technology?

In each of these cases—and on Shark Tank—showing works a lot better than telling does.

If you want to see how showing versus telling is done, scroll to 3:50 of this Shark Tank clip and watch entrepreneur Nathan Holzapfel. In just 20 seconds, he gets the sharks interested, not by telling them that he works hard and he cares and he keeps going, but by actually showing them. 20 seconds is all it takes for him to get billionaire investor Mark Cuban to belt out, “I love you—I LOVE you!”

When you’re writing your college essays, don’t just tell colleges that you’re resilient or hard-working or passionate. Show them.

And if you’re working your way through high school, remember that the best way to be successful and to get into college is to put your natural strengths to the best use so you have something to show for them.