What you actually bring to the table

The first piece of advice Collegewise gives every college writer is “Don’t try to impress the admissions office—just be honest.” Admissions officers are trying to get to know who you really are, not a polished, supposedly perfect version of yourself contrived to impress colleges. And we stand by that advice even when being honest means acknowledging a weakness.

It turns out this is good advice for the workplace, too.

According to University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant, playing up your accomplishments and otherwise focusing on selling yourself does not help undergraduates get job offers, employees secure promotions, or executives land board seats.

As shared in this article, Grant points out that there’s a logical reason why being honest, even about your weaknesses, works.

“By admitting your inadequacies, you show that you’re self-aware enough to know your areas for improvement—and secure enough to be open about them. That you’re interested in being hired for what you actually bring to the table, not what you pretend to bring.”

What kind of guest will your student be?

Parents, if you were hosting a large dinner party, how would you decide who to invite?

Would you base the invites on professional success alone? Would those with the most esteemed positions, best credentials, or biggest paychecks automatically get a seat at your table?

Or would you be more interested in what kind of guest they would actually be?

Professional success can certainly be part of what makes someone an interesting addition to your dinner table. But you’d probably be most likely to invite people you liked–people who were pleasant, affable, and all-around good additions. One arrogant blowhard or critical cynic can really drag a party down no matter how great their resume. But someone fun, engaged, and interested actually makes the evening better for the host and for the guests. Success is impressive. But impressive doesn’t necessarily equal likeable.

That’s exactly why so many colleges ask students to write essays as part of the application.

The application, transcript, test scores, activities, letters of rec—they all communicate a student’s success. But most students don’t just sit in class while they’re in college. They become participating members of a campus community, with clubs, organizations, activities, and yes, even shared meals. Credentials prove that you can handle the work. But likeability proves that you’ll be a guest who makes the upcoming four-year dinner party that much more enjoyable for those who are seated—literally and figuratively—at your table.

Remember that great college essays reveal who a student is, not just what they’ve accomplished. Qualifications reveal a lot about a student’s potential success. But their interests, personality, character, strengths, and even weaknesses—all expressed in their own 17-year-old voice—that’s where colleges decide what kind of guest your student will be.

For parents: when your delivery is all wrong

Take care in your delivery.

Imagine your son or daughter is getting married and you want to look your best on the big day. So you get a haircut, buy a new outfit, and visit a tailor to make sure it’s perfect. You spend a lot of time getting ready until you’re sure to look your best not just at the event, but also in all the pictures that will live on.

Then you show up to the wedding and your son or daughter says, “I don’t like your outfit at all. You’d look much better in something else.”

Wouldn’t you be hurt? Wouldn’t it seem insensitive? Wouldn’t you feel dejected to have all that time and care and pride you’d taken be so flippantly dismissed?

So imagine how your student feels when you read their college essay and say, “I don’t like this topic at all. You should write about something else.”

You might be right about the topic (though please read this post, and this one, before you decide). But your delivery is all wrong.

Don’t write an essay that’s spread thin

The University of Virginia has been running some blog posts about how to approach their various essay prompts. You can see the advice for applicants applying to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences here, and for the College of Arts and Sciences here. But whether or not you’re applying to UVa, I think you can take something important from these posts that will translate well to just about any essay prompt you’re approaching. So here it is, boiled down to its simplest form:

Just be honest.

Too many applicants write what they think the admissions office wants to hear. But that’s not the same thing as just telling the truth. Many of the tired, overused responses that these posts point out could have been avoided if the writers had actually just been honest.

Is that book from your English class really the one that “surprised, unsettled or challenged you?”

Do you (or the world, for that matter) really need another reminder app to alert you that it’s time to do an important task?

If you actually had been giving funding for a “small engineering project,” would you (and could you) really take on solar panels for everyone?

I understand where this desire to impress comes from. It’s your college essay, and you want it to help you get in. Giving them what you imagine they would want certainly seems like a viable strategy.

But please remember that every time you ask yourself, “What do they want to hear?” chances are that you’ll end up writing the same essay as thousands of other applicants.

There are plenty of good, honest answers to go around. But those contrived to impress are on a short list. And with so many applicants choosing them, those few options are spread pretty thin.

College essay “Don’ts”?

I read an article last week offering college essay advice to students that included the tip, “Don’t write about a failure.” I understood the reasoning behind that advice, and it would probably hold true for some kids. But certainly not all.

A failure isn’t inherently shameful, and it’s not necessarily a scar on your high school record. What if you tried your best to make the hockey team, got cut, and found your love for cross country as a result? What if you auditioned for the school play, didn’t get chosen, and volunteered to run the lights? What if the prompt is asking you to describe a failure and what you learned from it?

A quick Google search of “college essay don’ts” came up with dozens of results, almost all of which I thought either have frequent exceptions or are just flat-out bad advice.

“Don’t write about religion, politics, drugs, or sex.”

What if you’ve spent your high school years volunteering with your church, working for a city councilperson’s campaign, volunteering at a drug rehab center, or working with an outreach group that teaches sex education workshops to junior high school students? Are you to pretend you didn’t do those things?

“Don’t try to be funny.”

What if you are funny? What if you’ve done open mic nights at comedy clubs, or perform with an improv group, or write a humor column for the school paper? Are you to hide that side of yourself?

“Don’t write a ‘woe is me’ essay.”

If you’re just manufacturing a supposed hardship in the hopes the admissions office will pity you, then this “don’t” is great advice. But what if you have suffered a challenge, a setback, or even worse, a real personal tragedy? Are you not supposed to write about it?

Some of the don’ts are true 100% of the time. Don’t plagiarize. Don’t rely only on spell-check to proofread your essay. Don’t reference how much you want to attend Boston University in an essay you’re sending to NYU.

But most college essay don’ts come with exceptions. The prompts are varied, no two colleges are alike, and applicants are complex individuals. That’s a lot of potential combinations that very few “don’ts” can apply to universally.

Colleges use the essays to get to know you in a way that they couldn’t from your application alone. The first step to finding a great response is to consider your honest answer to the question. Write it in a way that sounds like you, as if you were explaining it to your favorite teacher. Inject enough detail so that nobody else applying to college could write the same essay. And most importantly, produce something that you’re proud of, something that your friends and family would read and say, “This is so you.”

Do all those things, and you’ll almost certainly produce a great essay. Even if it violates a common college essay don’t.

How not to start a college essay

College essays need to start strong. They’re competing for an admissions officer’s attention, and you don’t want to lose your reader before your story ever really gets going. So here are five opening approaches you should probably avoid. I’m not suggesting that some students haven’t pulled them off in some way. But let’s just say they’re more likely to lose your reader’s interest than they are to generate it.

1. An introduction to your story
Imagine you were telling a friend a story about life as a pitcher on the baseball team. You wouldn’t start with, “Often in life, we face difficult situations that ultimately benefit us. While we may not see it at the time…” You’d lose the person’s interest before you ever get to the good stuff. College essays work the same way. They’re stories, and stories need a beginning, not an introduction. Instead of writing a general introduction to warm the reader up to your topic, just start like this: “A pitcher’s mound can be the loneliest place in the world when you’re on it and things aren’t going well.”

2. A famous quote
An essay that begins, “John F. Kennedy once said…” is already on the wrong track. Unless the quote was actually directed at you, your reader cares a lot more about what you have to say than they do about any famous person’s pithy words. The one exception? Quotes can be effective when they’re actually part of the story, like, “I never should have taken the bait when my cousin said, ‘I’ll bet you can’t ride down that hill on your bike without using your hands.'” Otherwise, use your own words.

3. A definition
Opening with a definition, like “Persistence is defined as…,” will probably not be a strong start. Your reader doesn’t need you to define words, they need you to tell a story that will help them learn all about you. If your essay is about persistence, explain how you personified that trait. Use your available space to give the necessary details. And leave the definitions to Google.

4. What the heck?
Some students try so hard to be creative, or to entice the reader with a sense of intrigue, that they sacrifice clarity. If your reader is one paragraph in and thinking, “I don’t have a clue what this student is talking about,” you’ve moved from arousing interest to creating confusion. It’s certainly possible and often effective to begin your essay with a description that piques interest without necessarily revealing exactly what the description is about. But while enticing and intriguing are good, bewildering and unintelligible are not.

5. Anything that would show up on Google
You might think you’ve read or heard the perfect opening someplace else—a book of sample essays, a speech, a line in your favorite movie, etc. But pirating someone else’s writing is plagiarism, and every college I can think of would frown on an applicant who steals other people’s work without crediting the source. There’s always that chance that your reader could recognize what you’re sharing. And if they have even the slightest suspicion, the answer will always be just a Google search away.

Learn how to write a college essay before you start

Today I get to do one of my favorite activities of the year—present a college essay seminar to Collegewise families in the Seattle area. I always enjoy the opportunity to dust off my presentation chops and get in front of families who are just about to start this process under the expert guidance of our counselors. And best of all, we’ve learned that the best time to teach kids what works in a college essay–and more importantly, what does not–is before they start writing. You wouldn’t try to teach kids math, art, or chemistry by telling them to go do it on their own with the promise that you’ll teach them by critiquing their mistakes later. And we like our Collegewise kids to be essay savvy before they ever start writing.

Seniors, if you’d like to learn about college essay writing before you start, you can get your own video of my essay seminar here (it’s viewable online once you create an account). Or you can browse all of my past articles about essays here.

Politics in college essays?

Our Collegewise counselors often get questions, especially during an election year, from students about whether or not to share political views in a college essay. You can even broaden that question to religion, current events, or any other topic on which intelligent, reasonable people can have very different, equally valid beliefs. Is it OK to write about it, or is it too risky?

There is no fail-safe, yes-or-no answer to that question. But here are a few guidelines if you’re considering writing about a potentially divisive topic.

1. Apply to the right colleges.
It should go without saying that you should be mindful of the type of colleges you’re applying to. Some schools have established religious affiliations or prevailing ideologies. If your essay clearly flies in the face of those things, a reader can’t help but wonder if that’s the right place for you. Maybe you want to attend college with people who believe the same things you believe? Or maybe you want to be exposed to different ways of thinking? Whatever your preference, make sure the colleges you select align with the learning and community that you’re seeking.

2. Show that you’ve made an effort to learn.
You don’t get a lot of extra credit just for having a strong opinion (that’s available to anyone, informed or not). But it takes effort and curiosity to learn about the issue you feel passionately about. Have you studied this in class, talked with your teacher, read books, or otherwise made an effort to learn about this? If so, make those efforts clear in the essay. Colleges respect students who’ve worked to understand the complexities of an issue or belief. And a demonstrated track record of learning shows that you’ll likely keep making those efforts in college.

3. Have you walked your talk?
It’s one thing just to say that you believe strongly in gun control, the pro-life movement, health care reform, etc. It’s another thing to actually commit time to supporting that belief. Maybe you’ve volunteered for a campaign, or presided over a related club, or worked in a free clinic. Most colleges will acknowledge and appreciate the student who goes beyond just believing something and actually walks their talk to forward their cause.

4. Are you open to other viewpoints?
It’s possible to believe strongly in something while simultaneously remaining interested in different points of view. Whenever possible and appropriate, show colleges that you’ve considered how and why other people feel differently about this subject. If you’ve heard arguments on the other side that you think are valid, acknowledge them. Most colleges appreciate the vision of very different students actively sharing with—and learning from—each other. An interest in opposing viewpoints doesn’t show weakness in your resolve. It just shows that you’re mature enough to understand not only that the world is a complex place, but also that there’s always more you can learn about it.

For more on this subject, here’s some advice about topics that might be considered off-limits.

Clichés on the left, and the right

It’s rare that I post anything political here, but when the New York Times takes down both candidates for their reliance on clichés in their acceptance speeches, well, let’s talk politics!

For students who will soon be writing college essays, the article is a must read. You’ll get a real sense of just how empty these trite, overused phrases are. And more importantly, it will help you recognize them in your own writing.

Five ways to go wrong in college essays

When a Collegewise counselor loves a college essay, it’s very rare that the rest of us here feel the same level of effusiveness about it. Like college admissions officers, we’re a diverse group with very different tastes, backgrounds, and stories of our own. What moves or otherwise resonates with one person is never guaranteed to do the same for everyone else. Even the infamous “Costco Essay” by the applicant who got into five Ivy League schools this year didn’t get universal praise here (or from many high school counselors and admissions officers I know). Some of us thought it was engaging and creative. Others, me included, just didn’t care for it that much.

But we almost always all agree on the essays we don’t like. And admissions officers are the same way. While it might be frustrating to think that you can’t write an essay guaranteed to be a hit with any admissions officer, avoiding these five ways to go wrong will help you make sure you don’t inadvertently hurt your chances.

1. Trying too hard to impress
Many students try to inject deep meaning into stories, often in the form of life lessons they supposedly learned from the experience. And many of those messages reek of insincerity. Did that two hours spent serving food at a homeless shelter really teach you the importance of helping others (especially if you never did another community service project)? Did you really not know that teamwork was important until your field hockey team made it to the playoffs? Were you actually surprised that the culture was different when you visited a foreign country? You likely wouldn’t be riveted if someone started telling you those stories. And neither will the people reading them.

2. Generalities, generalities, and more generalities
“Hard work is important” is a generality. It could apply to anyone because it has no details. And without details, it’s impossible to get to know you. I once read an essay where an applicant spent 600 words explaining that it’s important to prepare when you go camping. It could rain. It could snow. You could get lost, etc. It’s all true, of course, but I didn’t need 600 words to understand that concept, and more importantly, I wasn’t getting to know him any better. I would have been a lot more interested to read about his specific preparation, how he used what he’d learned in the Boy Scouts, or how it had paid off when a trip to the woods went awry. Generalities don’t always hurt, but they never win people over.

3. Unlikable traits
Would students and faculty enjoy living, learning, and working with you on a college campus? That’s what admissions officers are wondering when they read your essay. And no matter how diverse the readers, nobody likes a snob, a complainer, a know-it-all, etc. Essays about the hardship you experienced when your parents refused to buy you a brand new car, why your teachers are to blame for your academic deficiencies, or how much smarter you are than your fellow students—nobody will read those and say to themselves, “Now that’s a kid I want to spend some time with!” Unlikable to one is often unlikable to many.

4. Same old story
It’s impossible for anyone to like a story they’ve heard (or in this case, read) more than a thousand times. But that’s what some tales are like for admissions officers. This isn’t fair to applicants because you have no way of knowing that thousands of other people are writing exactly what you’re writing. But the surest way to avoid that fate is to pay attention to #1 and #2 above. Those mistakes are what lead to overused essays.

5. Who is this?
There’s nothing wrong with getting help with your college essays. But there is such a thing as too much help. When you let too many people offer their suggestions, revisions, or, in the worst cases, sentences or even paragraphs to your college essay, it starts to read like it was written by a committee. Teenagers think and write differently than adults do, and colleges are expecting to read the words and thoughts of a 17-year-old who has not been to college yet. Go ahead and seek advice on your college essays from people who know you and who know what they’re talking about (your high school counselor, English teacher, or a qualified private counselor are good sources). But don’t shop your essay around and assume that everyone should get a vote. Pick 1-2 good sources and then get to work. When too many other people have gotten involved, it takes you out of the story. And that’s a hard story to like.

For more advice about college essays, here’s the essay section of this blog.