With so many students putting the final touches on their November 1 college applications, I’m a little hesitant to pass this last-minute advice along, but part of me thinks the students can handle the truth, so here goes. Just promise me you’ll read the entire column before your set your hair on fire or start hitting the Delete key.
A number of college representatives visit my high school every fall, and I always try to talk to them after they talk to the seniors. When we talk, I ask about the essays the reps read last year—what do the reps like about what they see, what they don’t like about what they see, and what they would like to see that they aren’t seeing. This is timely news that can help seniors create better college apps; they can’t change their grades from sophomore year or take more tests before November 1st, but they can design their essays to respond to the concerns the colleges talk about.
That’s what happened last week, when I spoke to a couple of reps and read a couple of interviews with college reps about essay do’s and don’ts—and the advice they offered made me nervous.
Remember—you promised you would read to the end.
“Students aren’t taking enough risks in their essays.”
The first thing counselors do after they hear something they weren’t expecting is listen more, so it came as no surprise when the reps kept talking when I said nothing—which worked out well, since I was so surprised I couldn’t say anything even if I wanted to.
“They’re playing it too safe when they write, and aren’t writing essays that tell us more about who they are or what they’re thinking about. That’s what the essay is all about.”
In other words, there are too many students writing too many essays that sound like they could be written by too many other students.
And if you think the solution is easy, think again.
Students are convinced the problem is the subject of the essay—favorite pet, most memorable class, current event of greatest concern. They think if they just answer “skunk” instead of “dog”, they set themselves apart from everyone else, and college is a done deal.
The reps aren’t saying that—it isn’t what students are writing about, but how they’re writing about it. If you think it’s impossible to write a more compelling story about a dog than a skunk, I have two words for you—Old Yeller. Can you even name a famous skunk in literature (and Pepe LePew doesn’t count)
Of course, it’s understandable if students listen to the college hype and decide the best thing to do is play it safe, and write a non-descript, mistake-proof essay. I get that, but if you’re worried colleges will notice your essays in the “wrong” way, remember what the reps said—bland essays aren't getting it done, either.
So it’s time to be brave by being you.
Students hold insightful conversations every day as they walk past the counseling office, and nearly all of them would make great college essays, rich with humor, honesty, and their own voice. Colleges want you to talk to them just like that—write as if you were walking down the school halls with the rep by your side. Your essays will make get positive attention, your application will get a closer look, and reps won’t be telling me about the need for more risk next year…
…and let’s hope they aren’t asking me why so many students wrote about Pepe LePew.