If you really knew me...
Let’s say there is a new game show on the air called "Are You the One for the Job?" (kind of like "The Apprentice", but not). Pretend you have just won a chance to get an awesome position in a company, doing something you know will make you exquisitely happy, in a town you love being in. You have already submitted your resume and progressed to the next level of the contest. Now you sit face to face with some strange adult and get ready to tackle more tough obstacles gauging your abilities and experience. The stranger looks at you and says "I only have one task for you. Finish this statement: ‘If you really knew me...’"
This is the college essay. Each application season, admissions officers are faced with many more applications from similarly qualified applicants than they have spaces to fill. They have seen the class ranks and GPA's, standardized test scores and summer activities. Now it is time to know if you will be a good fit in their college community. Who are you?
I love the essay. It is a chance to show not only others, but yourself, what you are made of. When your mom lost her job, how did you handle it? When you had to choose between chocolate and vanilla, why did you choose chocolate? If you could show off one quality that makes you special, what is it, and how can you show it off? Are you innovative? Aware? Resilient? Energetic?
The essay is crafted more around the “Why” than the “What”. The “what happened” is only the scaffolding to contain the more important component, “Why does it matter?” Lets put it this way: If the theme of your essay can’t still be communicated if you are in grandma’s front yard, instead of riding a camel through Ethiopia, then the essay is about Ethiopia. If your theme can come through if you moved the story to grandma’s front yard, it is about you.
Theme is paramount to the successful essay. And the good news is, you probably have dozens of great themes in your life that will illustrate the quality you want that college to hear about. Just ask your friends and family if you can’t think of them yourself. You want your future alma mater to know that you love to learn. What have you immersed yourself in just because you were curious? You want them to know you value healthy living. Would your friends remember you scolding them when they packed Twinkie cakes in their lunches in third grade? You want them to know you are resourceful. Would your family list some ways you have gotten what you need without going to them for extra allowance?
The other piece of good news is that the essay is not a competition. Students don’t get points for having more extraordinary experiences or more trauma to overcome. While we may wish we had stories to compete with our friend on social media who just took sled dogs across the Antarctic, colleges aren’t interested. Colleges respond to essays showing that you will respectfully and thoroughly engage in their community as an adult member, carrying on their colors and traditions. And if you are applying to that school, your goal is likely to be the same! Ultimately, the essay will be something that will surprise you as you gaze at your own reflection and think, “Hey, that kid is pretty great. I would want to meet him”
Here are some exercises that may help break down the fears and narrow down the topics:
Free write for 10 minutes about what you do first thing in the morning, or what you hope you will do next summer or why your little brother is such a pain. The topic is not important, as long as it is easy and can inspire you to take it any direction you want. For more about free writing, see this freewrite link
Talk to family and friends about how they see you. What are the top 3 words they would use to describe you?
Review a list of values (you can find them on line) and check off your 5 most important ones. Then, for each value, list 2-3 events from your life that illustrate that value, and then why the event matters. Here is an example of the process:
Event: Sweet 16 birthday party. I got a present from my aunt that I didn’t like, and I found a way to appreciate it anyway.
Why it matters: I have learned that I don’t have to compromise honesty and integrity to be caring and polite. Everyone benefits when we show respect.
So, dive in and begin to write. You will find your confidence growing with every draft done in honesty and boldness.
For more insights into what college officials are looking for in the essay, visit: