The honesty test

Here’s a college essay exercise that will help you find your best stories. It works best when you’re faced with a prompt that asks a specific question like, “What has been your most significant failing, and what did you learn from the experience?” rather than an open and general one like, “Relate a story that will help us get to know you better.”

Imagine that admissions officers could accurately measure the level of honesty in an essay response, and that the more honest your answer, the greater your admissions advantage.

If points were being given for honesty more so than anything else, what would your answer be? No exaggerated life lessons learned. No drama injected where none existed. No profound observations that never authentically ran through your head. Just the unvarnished, plain-and-simple truth.

Is there any reason that can’t be your reply?

Sometimes brutal honesty is not the way to go. If you think your biggest failure was the time that you tried to steal a test but got cold feet before going through with it, best to keep that to yourself. And any revelation that could raise concerns about whether you’re healthy and mature enough to live in a college environment is worth getting a second opinion from your counselor before you share it.

But I’ve brainstormed hundreds of essays with Collegewise students over the years. And I would often say something like:

“Forget about the essay for a second. It’s just me and you talking. What’s your honest answer to the question?”

Nine times out of ten, the honest reply that question generated was the gateway to finding the best story. Those students had great answers to the prompts—they often just needed reassurance that honesty was welcome within college essays.

If you’re having trouble starting your essay or you want to double-check whether or not you’re on the right track, try the honesty test. And then consider sharing the results in your ensuing story.  The honest version is usually the best version.

People who just know

Each of us has a slice of our world where we’re the expert, where our instincts allow us to just know.

A parent can just know when their child isn’t being entirely truthful.

A teacher can just know if a student isn’t grasping the material.

Successful doctors, lawyers, contractors, museum curators, orchestra conductors—they can see, hear, or sense things simply because of their deep experience in their respective fields. They’re able to just know.

Most college admissions officers would tell you that when a parent overtakes or flat-out writes her student’s college essay, they just know, too.

A student’s voice—the way they view, interpret, and describe events from their life–sounds different than a parent’s, especially in writing. And that difference is glaringly apparent to admissions officers who spend hundreds and hundreds of hours each year reading applications.

Last week during one of our spirited email discussions, many of the former admissions officers who now work as counselors at Collegewise echoed the “I just knew” sentiments when it came to parents taking over the essays. Two of them who’d worked at two of the most prestigious colleges in the country revealed that their staffs had been specifically trained to recognize the difference between a student’s writing voice and that of a parent.

Parents, I understand that you want the best for your kids. I know you think you’re helping them reach their goals when you get too involved in or even take over their college essays.

But admissions officers are very good at recognizing this behavior. And when they do, the student—not the parent—is the one who will be punished in the form of a denial. I’ve never met a college admissions officer who would ignore or otherwise excuse any portion of an essay that smacks of parental involvement.

Some parents will ignore this, convinced that their work will remain behind the scenes. You might be right if you’re lucky. But is it worth the risk?

It’s not easy to fool people who just know.

Are you doing drive-by charity work?

Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times piece, To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti? explores the trend for college applicants to engage in what he calls “drive-by charity work,” the “so-called service that’s sometimes about little more than a faraway adventure and a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges.”

If you’re under the impression that these programs offer an admissions boost and that they might make for good college essay fodder, please give the article a read and pay particular attention to these passages:

“’The running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rain forest,’ Ángel Pérez, who is in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, told me.”

And if you’re looking for a good, non-drive-by example of a summer that colleges will appreciate:

“Pérez told me that his favorite among recent essays by Trinity applicants came from someone ‘who spent the summer working at a coffee shop. He wrote about not realizing until he did this how invisible people in the service industry are. He wrote about how people looked right through him at the counter.’”

Speaker’s block

I frequently come back on this blog to give examples of companies and organizations apologizing poorly. The whole, “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused” just raises my hackles.

But why is that topic appropriate for a blog about getting into college?

Because words matter. Because kids, parents, counselors, teachers, and colleges communicate with each other frequently in writing. Because far too many students write college essays that sound stiff, informal, and not at all like them. And because I believe that good writers have an advantage, one that will be even more pronounced as we all spend more time emailing and less time talking face-to-face. My hope is that these examples of how to do it wrong will help more people see how to do it right.

Here’s this week’s example.

Delta Airlines suffered a computer outage that, by the time it was finally sorted out, had grounded their planes around the world, caused thousands of cancellations and delays, and left thousands of travelers stranded.

Here’s the email they sent (and yes, they misspelled “disruption”):

This week we failed to deliver on the reliability you, as a SkyMiles member, have come to expect from Delta Air Lines. We’re sorry we let you down and for the inconvenience it may have caused you. We appreciate your patience during this time. Please know that we are committed to providing exceptional service on every flight. We will do everything possible to make certain this does not happen again and look forward to the opportunity to serve you soon.

Your Delta Family

The bar is now so low for company apologies that this one is actually better than most. But here’s my litmus test. If the CEO’s mother had been stranded in an airport because of Delta’s outage, would she have received the same email? If the answer is no, then why should everybody else receive it?

You count on us to be reliable. When you book flights for your vacation, your business meeting, your college visit, etc., we’re supposed to get you there on time. But this week, we let thousands of you down. That’s not good enough, not for us, and not for our customers. The cause of these delays was technological, but no excuse will erase the hassle, disappointment, and justifiable frustration you likely felt. And for that, we are so sorry. We hope that with our history together, and our commitment to making sure that we never experience something like this again, you might be willing to fly Delta again. To that end, we’re going to credit you for the miles that you would have earned had your flight(s) not been cancelled last week. We appreciate your decision to fly with us, and we are so sorry that we didn’t get you where you were supposed to go, when you were supposed to be there. We hope you’ll give us another chance to get it right.

Your Delta Family

When in doubt, pretend you were saying it out loud to one person who matters to you. Then write what you would say. Writer’s block may be real. But speaker’s block rarely is.

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.