What Are Most College Essays Missing?

Q. What Are Most College Essays Missing?

A. The V Word.

What if I’m not good at showing my emotions?

I find emotions embarrassing.

I’m always happy.

I’ve had an easy life.

I come from a good family.

Do I have to be sad or have problems to write a good college essay?

These are just a few of the questions and statements from students I’ve worked with. The last one is a favorite of mine; I’ve been asked it more than once. My answer to each of these different excuses is stolen from Nike…#justdoit.

After this seemingly cavalier or harsh urging, I explain that a) if they intend to apply to college, which they assure me they do, and b) if they want to get into a college, which they assure me they do, then students have to write the Common Application Essay or some other Personal Statement equivalent.

And then I offer up these tips:

Choose Subject Matter That Makes You Feel A Teeny Bit, Or Quite A Bit, Uncomfortable

“I let my best friend down,” revealed one student. We’d been brainstorming essay topics for over an hour. This statement, though seemingly innocuous, became the pearl in this student’s oyster. He proceeded to relay a story in which he had been too busy courting a girl at a party to make sure his very inebriated BFF made it home safely. The BFF didn’t make it home, in fact, but ended up in the ER due to the kindness of strangers who saw the boy post-party stumbling alone on the sidewalk. What made the applicant uncomfortable was his shame over not being a good friend, a trait that he spent time cultivating and believed he truly had accomplished. The essay took many drafts to perfect, but once done, the narrative reflected the soul of the scribe, a teenager with compassion who made the wrong decision one night.

There’s No So Such Thing As An Always-Happy Life

Sorry, but I just don’t buy it when students’ say their lives have been free of any disappointments, discomforts or upsets. When I push students to reveal their tender moments, the small bruises that they’ve either forgotten or hidden, they almost always admit to having one or two or 10 and then they say, “But admissions people don’t want to know about THAT.”

Yes. They do.

I had a student who suffered from depression and explained that he had the condition under control and, despite this one issue, his life was great. He was also told by teachers, counselors and even his parents, that colleges don’t want to hear about mental illness. My POV? The colleges he was applying to might want to hear about his struggle with — and management of — his mental illness, depending on how he chose to frame the topic and the essay. “Really?” he said. It was the first time I’d seen this student smile. “It’s such a relief. I feel like I’m writing about me, now.” He wrote an inventive piece about how life felt for him pre-diagnosis and then how it felt post, with the help of therapy and medication. He was a different person post, he said. And a more successful learner, friend, sibling and actor. So, his literal “I was blind and now I see” narrative was not only revealing of who this student was, but also of how he overcame personal adversity to flourish. Much to his surprise, but not mine, he got into his ED choice of schools.

Give Yourself Time to Feel

You can’t whip off your college essays. Even the best prose writers, including AP English rock stars and Scholastic Gold Key Winners, meet their maker with the personal essay format. It’s HARD. Respect its mission which is to give students the space to introduce themselves to admissions teams. “I wish I had more time,” a student recently emailed me. You do, I told her. We then arranged a FaceTime session to discuss what was making her unable to quell her anxiety and settle down to write her essay. It turned out that she had decided not to apply to pre-med or PLME programs and now didn’t know what to focus her essay on. We brainstormed ideas with this vocational commitment off the table and she came up a great topic: Not knowing what she wants to be when she grows up. Her essay exposed her nervousness about giving up a focused career track and having multiple major options based on her multiple interests. She’s pretty sure she wants to attend a small liberal arts college instead of a large university which were the type of schools she’d been targeting with her doctor hat on. “A huge weight’s been lifted off of me,” she said. Her essay conveyed the exuberance, relief and, of course a little fear, in her newfound freedom of study.

Oh, as for the V word mentioned above. It’s vulnerability. Every successful college essay I’ve seen has a healthy sprinkling mixed throughout.

For information about College Counseling or College Essay Coaching, please drop me a line at Elizabeth@eecollegecoach.com or give me a holler at 917-863-2424. Also, for “news you can use,” please check out my blog and Facebook page.