When kids tell the best stories

Today I’m doing my annual essay workshop for the Collegewise families in our Bellevue, Washington, office. In the early years of Collegewise, I was in front of families 2-3 times a week to discuss some element of college planning. And while those opportunities are a lot more infrequent now that Collegewise has grown and my responsibilities have changed so much, the essay session is always my favorite because I’m trying to change the parents’ behaviors even more than I am the kids’.

Parents and college essays tend to be a bad mix. That might not be true if you’re a parent who really knows how to write and you’re helping someone you’re not related to. But when it’s your own child, it’s just impossible to be an objective, non-biased voice. You’re too close to the subject matter to be an impartial observer.

Adults also see the world differently than kids do. You’ve lived long enough to add learning and experiences and perspective to your worldview. But a college admissions officer wants to better understand the applicant and what makes them tick. They want to learn more about what it was like to be the worst swimmer on the swim team and why that kid slogged through it anyway. They want to learn more about why there’s so much pressure on the kid who ran the lights for the school play, or what it felt like to step in for the first chair oboist, or how life changed when the teenager gave up after-school sports to help care for the new baby brother in the house.

Colleges aren’t interested in the adult’s version of those events. They want the 17-year-old’s take, the story as told by the kid who lived it.

Those stories won’t have the same perspective and wisdom that an adult would have brought to it, but that’s what makes college essays so fascinating. A not-yet-fully-grown adult with their whole life in front of them shares a snapshot of what their life is like today. The more it sounds like an idea that was conceived, over-edited, or worse, written by the parent, the less compelling that story will be.

So parents, as your students move into college application season over the next several months, as much as possible, step back during the college essay process. Encourage your kids to get advice from someone they like and respect, like an English teacher or a counselor, and let that person do their job. Then get back to doing yours—cheerleading, supporting from the sidelines, and most importantly, being the parent of a college applicant.

For this particular audience, kids tell their stories better than their parents can.

Don’t put essay pressure on your summer plans

If you’re a senior applying to college this fall, you may already have a plan in place to write your college essay about an upcoming summer event: work, travel, a summer program or other experience where you’re sure to come back with good stories. But preemptively choosing a college essay topic on an experience that hasn’t happened yet is not an approach I recommend.

Your summer plans may eventually serve up great fodder for college essays. But that’s still to be determined. The truth is that some perfectly enjoyable and rewarding experiences don’t translate into great stories for college essays. Some summer stories reveal a lot more about the subject than they do about the writer. Some summer stories repeat the same experience shared by many other applicants in their college essays. Some summer stories simply repeat information that’s already listed on the application. You have every reason to be excited about what’s to come, and those experiences will almost certainly earn a proud spot when they’re listed on your application. But it’s too soon to tell if they’ll give you what you need to include that experience in one of your application essays.

I’ve seen too many students (or their parents) who get preemptively locked on plans to write about an experience yet to take place only to completely lose their essay objectivity on the other side of that experience. In college essay terms, they force it. They want so badly for the summer they planned for and are now proud of to work as a story that they inject all kinds of deep meaning that wasn’t there at the time. And essays like that always feel more forced than fresh.

Don’t second guess your choices of what to do this summer—this isn’t an indictment of those plans. In fact, lean into them! You made these plans for a reason, so go make the most of—and take the most from—them. But don’t put pressure on yourself or your plans to deliver a compelling college essay, too.

Give it time. Stay open to all essay possibilities. Then when it’s time to choose your topics, you’ll have a fresh perspective on both recent and past experiences without having to contend with any preemptive essay pressure.

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:

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:

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

Their version:

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

My Rewrite:

Community, department, self. In that order.

Their version:

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:

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