An anxious parent called me from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange last week to discuss his child’s Common Application essay for college.
Among the concerns: How could his child compete against clever minority applicants, including the one who submitted an essay to Stanford in response to the question, “What matters to you, and why?” with #BlackLivesMatter repeated over and over.
The bold application statement got the student, a longtime activist whose resume included an internship at the U.S. State Department, a Stanford acceptance letter and made him a sensation on social media. (The student, Ziad Ahmed, ended up attending Yale and now tweets about his campus activism. In other words, he’s the real deal.)
My response to the worried dad was “don’t fall into the comparison trap.”
Followed by, “a more important question to ask is whether your child’s essay is honest.”
As someone who tutors and provides constructive feedback to students on their college essays, one of my greatest challenges is getting students – and parents – to stop looking at what other students have done to get into Stanford, Harvard, Yale or even places such as Michigan State University.
All colleges want to hear the student’s individual voice in his or her writing. Colleges want essays that are written in a natural, conversational style and sound like a 17-year-old, not a 45-year-old stockbroker, golf pro or soccer mom. If your child is not a social activist, don’t force her to write an essay that makes her sound like one.
“Let your child be himself,” I told my anxious caller. “And stop reading other people’s essays.”
Wellesley College’s essay prompts page goes even further this year, saying: “Is a parent, counselor or teacher nagging you about writing your essay? Make them stop!”
I was disturbed by the media coverage of the #BlackLivesMatter essay because what the student did was not only clever, it was taken out of context.
His winning essay was one of several required essays. In its 2017-2018 application, Stanford requires four essays, including a 300-400-word Coalition Application or a Common App essay that can be up to 650 words long. There are also three short Stanford essays, including “Tell us about something that is meaningful to you, and why.”
It’s difficult to game the system when so much writing is required. That’s because all writing has “fingerprints” and it’s hard to fake several essays or just rely on one striking one.
The best essays can be about some small, even insignificant thing. The best will reveal a side of the student not shown by SATs or grades. The best may talk about values, feelings and goals.
If a college asks why you’re interested in attending, you should know details about specific classes and professors – and even what the favorite flavor of ice cream is on campus. (Hint: Dantonio’s Double Fudge Fake is a favorite at Michigan State, in honor of the school’s beloved football coach.)
One of my students recently finished an essay about his garage band and the great friendships he’s developed with his fellow musicians.
When I asked him what he liked about the essay, he replied, “It sounds like me!”