Mistakes can be persuasive

Just a month ago, I posted about how sharing weaknesses can accentuate a strength. Here’s another example, this one from Warren Buffet, the 86-year-old CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the world’s most successful investors.

The financial and business stakes are high when Buffett pens his annual letter to shareholders. Yet as Bob Cialdini, a psychology professor who studies and writes on the science of influence and persuasion, points out in this recent CNBC piece, Buffet almost always describes—within the first page or two—an error or mistake that he and his company made in the previous year.

Here’s how Cialdini describes the effect of those admissions:

“It is so disarming. . . I say to myself every time, ‘Oh! This guy is being straight with us. What is he going to say next? I need to pay attention to everything he says next!. . . He’s established himself as a trustworthy credible source of information before he describes the things that are most favorable, that he wants me to process and recall. Brilliant.”

Mistakes really can be persuasive, a tip worth remembering for students who will soon be trying to persuade with their applications and essays.

Real life is dramatic enough

One of the surest ways to turn a college essay into a cliché is to inject drama that wasn’t actually there in the moment the events occurred.

Here’s an example:

I swallowed my fear as we plunged down the icy rapids under the watchful command of our river guide.

It sounds more like a trailer for an adventure movie than it does a teenager’s perspective on an experience. Take the drama out, put the real back in, and look what happens.

Our guide Zeke really seemed to know what he was doing. But that didn’t change the fact that I wanted to be just about anywhere else than in an inflatable boat about to head down a rapid.

The drama is still there, but it’s real. And more importantly, it’s connected to this particular student.

Here’s another example:

As I crouched into my starter block and steadied my nerves, I knew that all those hours of work and dedication had all come down to this moment.

It might sound good. But is that really what this teenage runner thinks as she’s preparing to race? What if she took the drama out and put the real back in?

The pressure of running the 100 meter is knowing that no matter how hard you’ve worked in practice, the race can still be decided in the first quarter of a second, a thought that always seems to creep into my mind right as the gun is about to go off.

Now we’re getting real thoughts from a real runner. And it’s still plenty dramatic.

Sometimes drama takes the form of big meaning, life lessons, or other larger messaging beyond just what actually happened.

The most eye-opening part of my time volunteering at the homeless shelter was the conversations I would have with the residents. I came to see them not as homeless people, but just as people. This gave me an entirely new perspective about how important it is to help people, which only served to reinforce my desire to be a social worker.

All of those statements might technically be true. But the supposed revelations and new perspectives are likely not as meaningful as the actual events were. Take the drama out and put the real back in.

I’ve gotten to know some of these people at the shelter. I know that Bill has two kids he hasn’t seen in five years and that he used to be a pilot before alcoholism took it all away from him. I know people like Bill need help to get their lives back, more than just someone who shows up twice a month to volunteer for a few hours. And I know now, a lot more so than I did before, that I want to study social work in college so I can make a career out of helping people who need help the most.

It’s more believable, more memorable, and yes, even more dramatic.

If you thought something, saw something, or learned something during an experience, say so. But don’t inject drama that wasn’t there. Real life is dramatic enough.

College essays: think, but don’t overthink

As usual, the advice doled out on University of Virginia’s admissions blog is both timely and spot-on, this time in their entry with three pieces of advice for college essays. The tips are intended for applicants who will be responding to UVA’s prompts, but two of the three can apply to any college essay you’re writing.

I actually think the other tip, “Don’t overthink the topic,” is applicable for every college essay, too, just not for the reason UVA’s blogger cites for their applicants (which is that the UVA prompts are deliberately broad to allow applicants to take their responses in a variety of directions).

College essay prompts are meant to be carefully considered, then honestly and thoughtfully responded to. But they are not meant to be agonized over in search of an illusive right answer.

A prompt might ask you, “Tell us about a time you failed or made a mistake, and what you learned from it.” Your honest answer might be that after oversleeping twice in the first 10 days of your new summer job, you started setting two alarms and getting up an hour earlier than you needed to, and you were never late again. That’s a real answer from a real kid that would probably go over very well with an admissions officer.

But if you spend all kinds of time questioning whether or not this answer is strong enough, if you second guess whether or not this is what the admissions office wants to hear, if you choose a different answer that injects a lot of life lessons into a different experience that actually didn’t contain those lessons but that you think makes for a better essay pitch, you’re officially overthinking the prompt.

You spend a lot of time in high school looking for the right answers. Your exams have right answers. The essays you write in your English class may take different views from different students, but you’re either substantiating your view with supporting evidence from the book (a right answer), or you’re not (a wrong, or at least unsupported answer). I understand why students carry that tendency with them into college essays. It’s hard to turn it off when you’ve spent this many years being rewarded for right answers and penalized for wrong ones.

But a college essay is different. It’s about you. You are the right answer. Anything that doesn’t accurately represent or sound like you, anything you didn’t actually think or feel or learn, anything that’s presented to be something that it actually isn’t or wasn’t–that’s a wrong answer. And the surest way to start down the path towards a wrong answer is to overthink the prompt.

Think about the prompts, yes. But if you start spending more time wondering what the admissions office wants to hear than you do considering what you have to say in response, you’ve moved from thinking to overthinking.

How to get a college essay jump start

Soon-to-be college applicants, here’s a great way to start your college essays—and to improve your college essay writing—before most applications are available. Write 1-2 paragraph responses to the following ten questions using these criteria:

  • Be completely honest. Nobody will see, grade, or evaluate your responses, so you have nothing at all to lose.
  • Use specific stories to illustrate what you’re describing.
  • Write as if you were talking to your favorite teacher, someone you respect but also feel comfortable talking with.
  1. Which activity has meant the most to you and why?
  2. Which activity will miss you the most next year and why?
  3. What’s your favorite subject/class/teacher and why?
  4. What’s something you’d like to learn more about when you get to college?
  5. When have you failed or made a mistake during your high school years, and what did you learn from it?
  6. What have you made a conscious effort to learn about outside of your high school classes? These could be academic topics, skills, hobbies, interests, etc.
  7. Name three things that you’re just naturally good at (subjects, skills, jobs, etc.).
  8. What is something that you’re just not good at, no matter how hard you try?
  9. What has been your proudest moment of high school? (It doesn’t matter whether it’s impressive or important to other people; it just has to matter to you.)
  10. When you imagine the things you hope or expect to gain from college, which 2-3 would be at the top of your list and why?

Now, when the applications become available, you’ll have ten stories from which to pluck everything from ideas, to inspiration, to actual sentences or even paragraphs.

Honest writing that sounds like you, that’s not contrived to impress, and that reveals actual events from your life is exactly what admissions officers hope to read from applicants’ college essays. I simply cannot imagine a scenario where a student faced with multiple college essay prompts would not be able to draw heavily from honest, detailed, revealing responses to these questions.

Talk it out

There are times that I’m reminded to follow a piece of my own advice I’ve shared here. Yesterday was one of those times.

As I shared last week, I’m rewriting the “Careers” page of the Collegewise website, starting from scratch. I want the copy to convey the right messages, to sound like us, and to draw in the kind of people who would be happy and successful at Collegewise. It’s a long process to get that messaging and tone right, sometimes one that means reworking even a single sentence 3 or 5 or 10 times until it reads perfectly. Some of that is to be expected—good writing does mean good editing. But it’s still a process, one that takes a lot more time than the total number of words might appear to take.

I spent yesterday with Frank, our filmmaker, shooting what will become our recruiting video. The questions he asked covered some of the same subjects I’ve been trying to capture in writing:

What traits do you look for in the people you hire?

How would you describe the Collegewise vibe?

How can people take ownership over their job at Collegewise?

What makes Collegewise a great place to work?

What does Collegewise do better than anyone else?

Why do you love working here?

But unlike the process of writing about those subjects, the process of talking about them came easily. The words just spilled out in a natural conversation. Sure, they might be more punchy and precise if they were edited like a written piece. But as far as messaging, I said exactly what I wanted to say. And most answers only required one take. I didn’t get a case of “talker’s block.”

Whether you’re writing website copy, an important email, or a college essay, before you write it out, try saying it out loud. Pretend you were talking with a friend or colleague. You’ll inevitably find that the words come a lot more quickly and easily. You’re probably more likely to say what you want to say with take number one than you are to write what you want to write with draft number one. And chances are, you’ll still spend less time writing and editing your way to a great finished product.

I’ve said—and written—about this before. But like me, maybe a few readers needed a reminder to talk it out before you write it out.

What did we write about for our college essays?

Every Friday at Collegewise, we ask everyone in the company a lighthearted question, like:

  • What was your worst fashion faux pas?
  • If you could teach any class, what would it be?
  • What’s the most awkward thing that ever happened to you on a date?

We call these our “Friday Fun” questions. We share the responses with everyone in the company, and participation is entirely optional. It’s been a great way for us to get to know each other better and to have a little Friday Fun to end our work weeks.

Our most recent question: What did you write about for your college essay?

Some of our counselors can be justifiably proud of their college essay insight when they were seventeen, but many more (myself included) submitted responses like:

I remember writing a particularly cringe-worthy essay about my participation in my school’s literary magazine. Thank God that publication pre-dated the digital age!

I’ve lived in shame about this [choice of topic] for years and especially since coming to Collegewise.

That time I studied abroad and met an artist in Spain who drew a beautiful portrait that made me reflect on my life, values, and every other cliche possible.

I don’t remember the specifics but it was about building a roaring campfire and how all these experiences in my life were the tinder and kindling. Maybe logs, too. I’m horrified even thinking about it.

How I learned life lessons on the swim team. I KNOW. I AM MAD AT ME TOO.

The topic wasn’t the worst, but I’m SURE the way I wrote about it was.

These counselors all went on to selective colleges (some to highly selective schools). Some went on to work as admissions officers or high school counselors. And all of them are successful college counselors at Collegewise today who can help high school students find and share the kind of stories they won’t just be proud of today, but also many tomorrows from now.

I share these snippets to remind readers that while the essays are important, they’re still just one part of the application. And more importantly, these wonderfully self-deprecating essay revelations from our Collegewise counselors are just yet another reminder that lots of successful people today didn’t do everything perfectly in high school.

If you work hard, make the most of college, and try to be a good person, things have a way of working out, regardless of your test scores, activities, or essay topic back in high school.

Essay advice from an admissions insider

Most of the articles or blog posts I come across sharing college essay tips just aren’t all that helpful. The tips are either pretty obvious (“proofread your essay”) or vague and difficult to follow (“don’t be humble, but don’t brag”).

Meredith Reynolds, Tufts Class of 2011 and current Assistant Director of Admissions, shares The Only Four College Essay Writing Tips You’ll Ever Need. It’s so clear, easy to follow, and spot-on that I couldn’t even pluck out a favorite highlight to share—I honestly wanted to paste every word of the article here.

It’s a quick but very worthwhile read, and penned by someone who clearly knows what the heck she’s talking (and writing) about.

On self-deprecation

Despite the fact that Five underutilized ways to give yourself an advantage with your college essay doesn’t seem like an accurate title for Jay Mathews’ recent post (only the first two tips have to do with essays), this first tidbit is worth considering.

1. At least once in any essay, make fun of yourself. It’s called self-deprecation. It should be (but is not) taught in every essay-writing and speechmaking class. When my daughter Katie’s first-choice college asked her to tell it something not on her application, she wrote about her friend’s label for her: the human jukebox. She could identify songs by just the first three or four notes. She told the college, “The happiest place in the world for me is inside my car singing (badly) to pop music.” That’s self-deprecation. You can slip some into whatever you have already written. If it’s about your volunteer hospital work, describe a clumsy moment. Did you mix up a patient’s urine sample with his apple juice? That tells the college you are not just smart but enjoyable to have around.

I’d offer just one potential revision to that advice.

Self-deprecation works when it’s true, and some stories don’t necessarily involve a mistake, an embarrassing moment, a less-than-perfect showing, etc. Tell the whole truth. Don’t polish out every bit of reality to the point that you’re presenting yourself as perfect (you’re not—none of us are, including the people reading your application). But don’t feel like you necessarily have to wedge it into every story.

Is your essay recyclable?

If you watch the presidential debates, you’ll see both candidates sometimes so intent on driving home their talking points in a response that they never actually answer the question. This isn’t specific to one party or even one election cycle. It’s just an example of a candidate (1) identifying an idea or accomplishment that they’re comfortable with or proud of, and then (2) expressing it at all costs, even if it doesn’t actually answer the question.

Many students do the same thing with their college essays.

Some students write one essay that they’re proud of and then try to wedge it into every application possible. That instinct isn’t inherently bad—great stories tend to lend themselves to more than one response.

But your essay still has to answer what’s being asked. If it doesn’t, it will be pretty obvious to the reader that you either didn’t bother to read the question, or more likely, you’re just reusing an essay from another school without worrying about whether or not it addresses the prompt. Neither one of those conclusions works in your favor.

You can only recycle what’s recyclable.

Here’s a past post with more on this.