How parents can help kids with college essays

I did a seminar about college essays at an admissions event today.  And I gave parents the advice I've given for my entire career as a college counselor about how parents can best help their kids with college essays. 

Don't get involved.  Stay away.  In fact, run the other direction. 

Parents are the worst judges of their own kids' college essays.  You are not impartial observers.  You love your kids too much, and you are way too close to the subject matter to advise your son or daughter what and how to write in their college essays.

Most kids resent their parents' involvement in the college essay anyway.  And the colleges can always tell when you got too involved.  Kids think and write differently than parents do, and you'd be surprised how obvious is it to the trained reader when too many of the ideas or the words came from Mom or Dad. 

I know what some of you are thinking.  Some of you are thinking I'm wrong.  Every time I give this advice to a crowd, there's one parent who scowls at me.  It's inevitably a parent who inserts herself into everything her kid is doing.  It's the parent who's sure that she's the exception to the rule. 

She's not.  And neither are you. 

So preserve your family relationship and the purity of the essays. 
Stay out of them.  Help with other things like planning college visits,
and filling out financial aid forms and cheering your kids on
throughout the process.  But when it comes to college essays, remove
yourself from the process.  Your kids and the colleges will thank you for it.

College essay lessons from Warren Buffett

An interesting piece, “Start-up Lessons Learned from Warren Buffett” that analyzes why Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders is an example of masterful communication.  Turns out these are great pieces of advice for writing college essays, too.

Here are the points the article raises, along with my college essay version of the advice.

1.  Converse like a real human being.

Buffett doesn’t hide behind business-speak–he just writes clearly, as if he were talking to you over lunch.  He could sound like one of the world’s foremost authorities on investment (he is), but instead just goes for a conversational tone.  That’s exactly how you should write your college essays.  No kid in the history of kid-dom has ever said to a friend, “Participating in the ASB has taught me valuable lessons about working well with others.”  Don’t hide behind college-essay-speak.  Just say it.

2. Admit mistakes and move on.

Buffett’s been wrong before. But when he makes mistakes, even big ones, he doesn’t make excuses.  He accepts responsibility and then moves on.  A lot really successful people today made dopey mistakes when they were teenagers.  If you’ve done the same, you’re in good company.  But don’t blame other people or try to explain away your failures.  Accept responsibility, learn what you can, and then move on to bigger and better things.

3.  The power of humor in business.

Buffett knows how to entertain a reader with lines like,

Charlie and I enjoy issuing Berkshire stock about as much as we relish prepping for a colonoscopy.”

You don’t necessarily have to be funny in your college essays.  But you do have to entertain your reader.  Admissions officers are tired and bored during admissions season.  You have to do your part to hold their attention.  Good writers know how to do that with lines like these, courtesy of some of our Collegewise kids.

“Even with all its problems, my car has never stalled or failed to get me where I want to go.  When I went to crash a sorority beach party with some friends, the car (thank god) made the whole trip”

“I was the only girl on the cross country team who had a 12 year-old brother at my races yelling, ‘Run faster!  You’re fat!'”

“I had a knack for business at age 10.  That’s when the snow cone empire first took off. “

Take the advice or leave it.  But remember that Buffett is worth 47 billion dollars.

 

What you can learn about college essays from Matt Damon

Bad college essays tell stories that the writer hopes will sound impressive, not stories that the student actually cares about.  They usually include sentences the writer would never say to a friend. 

What football player would ever tell a teammate, "Football has taught me important lessons about hard work and commitment"?

What kid who volunteers at a soup kitchen would ever say, "As I handed the bowl of soup to the elderly woman, I had an epiphany about the value of helping people"?

What student comes back from a trip to Europe and tells her friends, "I expanded my cultural horizons by learning to appreciate the subtle yet important differences between the French and Americans"?

Bad college essays just try too hard, not unlike how Matt Damon (who went to Harvard, by the way) describes bad acting in the first 50 seconds of this clip.

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.

  

Costume not requiered

I remember a Collegewise student who began his college essay,

"I hate Halloween.  Actually, it's not so much the holiday I hate as it is the obligation to wear a costume.  No matter what costume I wear, I just feel like an idiot."

In three sentences, he's already accomplished three important goals for college essays.

  1. Get the reader interested right away with a pithy first sentence.
  2. Inject some of personality into the writing. 
  3. Use your story to help readers get to know you in ways the application alone would not allow. 

What do the first three sentences of your college essay say about you?

Have fun, and be safe tonight.  Happy Halloween.

The Five Most Overused Essay Topics

One of our counselors referred to his last year working in admissions at Caltech as the year of the blood drive essay. That year, an unusually high number of applicants told the same tale of how one on-campus blood drive changed their lives and made them appreciate the importance of serving humanity.

Writing such grandiose statements into your essays won’t help you stand out. The statements sound cliché. So here are the five most overused clichés I—and every admissions officer I’ve spoken with—see most often, and which you should avoid.

1. The aforementioned “blood drive essay” or “How community service taught me the importance of helping others”

Colleges appreciate students who are concerned about their communities. But one blood drive does not a humanitarian make. A claim to have learned how important it is to help people needs to be substantiated with evidence of a sincere, long-term commitment to helping people. Otherwise, your message loses some oomph.

If you had an experience during your community service that really meant a lot to you, say so. And be honest. Otherwise, consider doing a good deed for admissions officers and avoid the community service cliché.

2. “Hard work always pays off,” and other life lessons learned while playing sports

The problem with many sports essays is they explain what life is like for every athlete. You go to practice. You work hard. You compete.

Then the student makes it worse by saying sports taught him the importance of hard work and commitment, which is almost certainly not something he would say to his friends.

Be original. Tell your sports story that nobody else can tell. If you can’t find a story you own, just write about something else. The sport will still be listed on your application.

3. “How my trip to another country broadened my horizons”

This essay essentially says, “France is very difference from the United States—the food, the language, the customs. But I learned to appreciate the differences and to adapt to the ways of the French.”

Visiting a country and noticing that it is different is not a story that you own. The admissions office doesn’t want to read your travel journals. Instead, make yourself, not the country, the focus of the essay.

One of my students who had never previously ventured onto any sort of dance floor wrote that his trip to Spain was the first time he’d ever danced in front of other people. That wasn’t an essay about how Spain was different—it was an essay about how he was different in Spain.

4. “How I overcame a life challenge [that wasn’t really all that challenging]”

Essays can help admissions officers understand more about a student who has overcome legitimate hardship. But far too many other students misguidedly manufacture hardship in a college essay to try to gain sympathy or make excuses (e.g., for low grades). That won’t work.

If you’ve had a difficult hardship and you want to talk about it, you should. Otherwise, it’s probably better to choose a different topic. Note: The pet eulogy falls into this category. Lovely if you want to write one. Just don’t include it as part of your college essay.

5. Anything that doesn’t really sound like you

Your essays are supposed to give the readers a sense of your personality. So give your essays a sincerity test. Do they sound like you, or do they sound like you’re trying to impress someone?

Excerpted from my book: If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted

You can also find even more advice in our video, “How to Write Great College Essays.”  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.

McEssays (with Cheese)

Any senior who's planning to write college essays this fall should stop and read Parke Muth's "Writing The Essay: Sound Advice from an Expert."  In fact, his analogy comparing boring essays to Big Macs is so good that I actually started to resent him a teeny bit because I didn't come up with it myself.  At least I'm honest. 

Here's my favorite snippet: 

"Ninety percent of the applications I read contain what I call McEssays
– usually five-paragraph essays that consist primarily of abstractions
and unsupported generalization. They are technically correct in that
they are organized and have the correct sentence structure and
spelling, but they are boring. Sort of like a Big Mac. I have nothing
against Big Macs, but the one I eat in Charlottesville is not going to
be fundamentally different from the one I eat in Paris, Peoria or Palm
Springs. I am not going to rave about the quality of a particular Big
Mac. The same can be said about the generic essay. If an essay starts
out: "I have been a member of the band and it has taught me leadership,
perseverance and hard work," I can almost recite the rest of the essay
without reading it. Each of the three middle paragraphs gives a bit of
support to an abstraction, and the final paragraph restates what has
already been said. A McEssay is not wrong, but it is not going to be a
positive factor in the admission decision. It will not allow a student
to stand out."

College essays need personality (and some guts)

I did an essay workshop at a local high school today, at the end of which, a senior approached me a question.  He was debating between two stories to write in his essays and wasn't sure which one was the best choice, so I asked him to describe both to me. 

The first story was about being a troop leader in Boy Scouts, how at first the younger kids didn't respect him, he had to earn their trust, it taught him about how to be a leader, etc. etc.  He didn't even seem to enjoy describing the story, so I couldn't imagine that he would enjoy writing it.

The second story was about the time he and his friends entered a talent show competition in which they reenacted a 1990s boy band act.  Apparently, they spent hours watching videos to learn the dance moves, recreating the costumes, and perfecting their four-part harmony.  Even as he described it, he was animated, and his personality was coming out just telling the story.

Neither of those topics is inherently good or bad.  And whichever one he chooses, he'll need to tell an effective story that helps readers get to know more about him.  But I can tell you this–every year, thousands and thousands of college applicants write stories about leadership, perseverance, commitment, and other supposed "valuable life lessons" that they learned  Most of those kids didn't actually think those deep, reflective thoughts during and after those experiences.  And most aren't excited about those stories; they're just relating what they think the admissions office wants to hear.  Do you have any idea how many, "My trip to Europe broadened my horizons" and "Community service taught me the importance of helping others" admissions officers have to read every year?

The best college essays are about topics that make the writer tick, that give a glimpse into some part of your life (sometimes a big part, sometimes a small part).  Those essays almost write themselves because you are so engaged in the story.  It doesn't matter whether it's about a life-threatening illness or working a part-time job at a hamburger stand.  It's the energy behind the topic that's contagious and can move an admissions officer.

This student was excited about his boy band story.  So I told him to go with it.  When in doubt, write what you want to write.  Inject your personality.  Write something that if your best friend read it, she would acknowledge that it sounds exactly like you. 

It takes guts to write what you want to write, but that's a lot less risky than giving them what you think they want to hear.

College Essay Workshop at Palos Verdes High School

This summer and fall, we're offering our College Essay
Workshop on the campus of Palos Verdes High
School in Palos Verdes Estates, CA.  Students will not only attend our essay seminar, but will also have the opportunity to submit their UC or Common Application essays to us for feedback.  We're pretty excited about it.  The workshop tuition is $295 and PVHS students can enroll through the link at the end of this post.  We hope to see your student in the class!

[Read more…]

The One Thing You Need To Know About…

We_sell_soda

The more advice you’re given about college admissions, the more complicated the whole process seems.  So this month, we picked some of the most common college admissions topics and, for each one, asked ourselves, "What’s the one thing a student really needs to know about this?"  Read one to find five of those of those one-things.      

1.  College Essays

Don’t write what you think the colleges want to hear.  You’ll inevitably end up writing about how community service taught you that it’s important to help people, or how your trip to Spain taught you to appreciate different cultures.  And those are the essays that everybody writes. 

[Read more…]