College essays: give admissions officers what they really want

My dad forwarded me a recent New York Times article about “conquering” the college essay. The author knows what she’s talking about. She read applications at Duke, she authored a book about her experience there, and today she’s a professor of creative writing. The advice is sound, and I did enjoy—and agree with—her pithy observation that many essays sound the same—“baseball = life, or debate = life,” or “I went to a developing country and discovered poor people can be happy.”

But she left out what I believe is the single most important piece of college essay advice, the guidance that, if you follow it, will help you choose stories that will resonate, write them in an original way, and avoid many of the most common mistakes, clichéd topics, and other essay gaffes.

Just be honest.

It sounds so deceptively simple that it’s easy to misinterpret. The truth is that there is a lot of lying in college essays. I don’t mean that applicants fabricate facts or entire stories (though some certainly do). I mean that they inject meaning and gravity and perspective that wasn’t there when the events occurred, all in the name of writing what they think admissions officers want to read.

Take the examples above, starting with “baseball = life.” I can’t tell you how many students write about an activity and claim that it taught them important life lessons. Yes, playing baseball could very well have involved some hard work and goal setting. But then those applicants write sentences like, “Baseball taught me the importance of hard work and committing to your goals.”

Really? You had no idea that hard work and committing to your goals was important? Was baseball really your first instruction to that concept? I—and most admissions officers—find that hard to believe. It’s not an egregious lie like falsely claiming you pitched a no-hitter and won the championship. But you’re not being honest, either.

If your essay claims that speech and debate taught you how important it is to face your fears in life, you’ve just added all sorts of meaning to that experience that almost certainly wasn’t there. Did speech and debate really introduce you to that perspective? You’re saying that all those stories of underdogs facing their fears never stuck with you until you did speech and debate? I’ve certainly never heard a teenager utter a phrase like that in conversation. So why include it in your college essay?

The “I discovered while traveling that poor people can also be happy” essay is another eye-roller for admissions officers. Was that trip really the first time you became aware of this? Did you really have no idea that people who don’t have a lot of money can still find personal happiness?

I know this may sound flippant or dismissive of teenagers and their admissions efforts, but I mean it to be the opposite. You are not a cliché. You are an interesting, complex, human teenager who’s living through a period of your life that virtually every adult can relate to at some level, and that every admissions officer I’ve ever met genuinely wants to know more about.

Now, let’s inject some honesty into those previous examples.

My baseball coach really has been like a father figure to me. My dad hasn’t been in my life since my parents got divorced ten years ago. But when I needed a ride to our playoff games because my mom was working, when I needed a reference to apply for a job at the local supermarket, and when I needed to know what the heck a corsage was before I took a date to my first formal dance at school, Coach Hanson was there for me.

As a reader, you’ve got my attention. I’m all in. And you did it without some ridiculous hook. All you had to do was just be honest.

I’m not the most confident person. I’m shy and I have a hard time meeting new people. That’s why I always hated going to summer camp as a kid. I felt like the only one there who still didn’t have a camp crew to run with after the first week of being there. But at a debate competition, I’m a different person. I speak confidently. It doesn’t matter how many unfamiliar people are watching me. I’m never flustered. In fact, I’m in the zone. Speech and debate isn’t just the place where I’m at my best. It’s also where I’m the most at ease. I really like the person I am on that stage. And I like that other people do, too.

Doesn’t honesty work just fine there?

I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly excited to be away from my friends for two weeks to dig ditches in Costa Rica. But since I came back, I haven’t shut up about it. I’ve told all of my friends that they should do it, too. My time there changed me. I have a good life, an easy life, which my teenage mind didn’t appreciate nearly as much as I should have. I think my parents would tell you that I voice a lot fewer complaints these days about things like having to mow the lawn or not being able to stay out as late as I’d like. And I’ve started volunteering once a week at the local food bank, which is honestly the best four hours I spend on my Saturdays. None of those things were true six weeks ago. And I have my experience in Costa Rica to thank for it.

I can’t speak to whether or not that applicant might have had an even better story to tell. But the honest version of these events resonates a lot more than a puffed up version would have.

I’m not suggesting that you should necessarily emulate my examples here, or even that these particular sentiments are what you should try to express. Your college essays should sound like you. But—and here we go again—the only way to sound like you is to be honest.

Admissions officers want to get to know you better. They want to learn what makes this human applicant who’s more than just a collection of grades and test scores tick. And most importantly, they want the 17-year-old teenager’s version of the events. They don’t want your attempt to impress them. They really want you to be honest.

To write a great college essay, give them what they really want.

“Show, don’t tell…”

Fans of ABC’s Shark Tank, where investment-seeking entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to the cast of multi-millionaire and billionaire tycoons (the sharks), have seen this scenario play out on the show. The sharks are interested, but on the fence, questioning if there’s enough potential in this business to earn their time, money, and attention. Sensing that he or she is at risk of losing their potential deal, the entrepreneur tries to tell the sharks what sets them apart.

“I’m relentless. I will not give up.”

“You won’t find someone who works harder than I do.”

“I am passionate about this!”

I’ve seen almost every episode of Shark Tank, but I’ve never seen any of these statements alone lure a shark to make an offer.

Persistence, hard work, and passion are prerequisites for entrepreneurial success. And just because you do those things doesn’t necessarily mean you have a viable business.

Would an NFL coach be swayed just because you claimed to practice hard?

Would a potential romantic partner be swayed just because you claimed to be a nice person?

Would a recruiter at Google or Apple be swayed just because you claimed to be passionate about technology?

In each of these cases—and on Shark Tank—showing works a lot better than telling does.

If you want to see how showing versus telling is done, scroll to 3:50 of this Shark Tank clip and watch entrepreneur Nathan Holzapfel. In just 20 seconds, he gets the sharks interested, not by telling them that he works hard and he cares and he keeps going, but by actually showing them. 20 seconds is all it takes for him to get billionaire investor Mark Cuban to belt out, “I love you—I LOVE you!”

When you’re writing your college essays, don’t just tell colleges that you’re resilient or hard-working or passionate. Show them.

And if you’re working your way through high school, remember that the best way to be successful and to get into college is to put your natural strengths to the best use so you have something to show for them.

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.