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!

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The One Thing You Need To Know About…

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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. 

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Inside the Admissions Office

Be_yourself Arun Ponnusamy, director of our Los Angeles office, is riding high these days. His beloved Ohio State Buckeye football team is ranked #1—he hasn’t missed a game on his flat screen all season.

When she’s not in the office next to Arun, Collegewise Counselor Jessica Schattgen is planning her wedding. This means she can recite all the advice from Martha Stewart’s last six “wedding guides.” And in our Irvine, CA office, Allison Cummings thinks that Burger King’s “Whopper with cheese” is a culinary delicacy to be enjoyed as frequently as possible. She’s acting on that belief. Regularly.

Fascinating? Not necessarily. But that’s the point. All three of these Collegewise counselors are regular people like the rest of us. And all three used to work as admissions officers at selective colleges.

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