College Essay Coaching: The Glaring Omission

I’ve come across a heartbreaking trend among my students who are applying this fall to prestigious colleges and universities.

Many of them have stunning achievements, including perfect scores on standardized tests, hundreds of hours in volunteer work and leadership positions on winning sports teams. Their credentials include self-publishing books, rising to the top in national TV competitions and building homes for refugees in foreign countries.

But they don’t have any friends.

When I sit down with them to help them figure out the best story to tell for their Common Application and supplemental essays, I ask them to fill out a form with five columns. It lists Academics, Athletics, Extracurricular Activities/Jobs, Family and Friends. The Friends column is often left blank. When I ask why, they typically say, “No time for friends.”

When we practice making small talk (and, yes, we do this for the first few minutes of every session), I ask them some basic questions, such as “What did you do for fun this weekend?” or “Are you going to the homecoming dance?” Invariably, they say, “No time for fun” or “Homecoming conflicts with my piano lesson.”

These students are beyond overscheduled in the quest to get into their dream school. I blame the culture, the schools, the parents and the unrelenting pressure to succeed, even when you are 16 or 17. Friendship is devalued in the process. Wasting time is seen as the greatest sin, when wasting time with a friend may be the most important part of the student’s week.

In my community, there’s a big rock in a local park that’s become an emblem of wasting time.

Teens go there to hang out and paint messages to their friends – everything from “Happy Birthday” to good-natured kidding about high-school football rivalries. The rock, now something of a community message board, even has its own Facebook page.

As I watch kids paint it, I wonder how many of them are applying to community colleges, instead of fancier schools. They may not be as “successful” as some of their peers, but I’ll bet some of their lives are more balanced. They probably have lots of friends. As a psychologist friend of mine likes to say, they are “human beings,” not “human doings.”

If I catch my essay students early enough in the process, one of their assignments is to make a friend. This can be a controversial task. Some experts say you should never write about such a trite subject as friendship in a college essay. One of my students thought the assignment was absolutely ridiculous, but she played along.

She went out for coffee with two classmates and found it slightly awkward, but also discovered that one of the girls had never had a birthday party – and her birthday was a week away. My compassionate student baked a birthday cake for her new friend.

It was a disaster. The cake fell and it had frosting that was supposed to be blue, but looked green. When she presented it to her new friend, the girl burst into tears and hugged her. They grew closer and she ended up writing about the friend as part of a college essay. That she had a new subject to write about for her essay was the least important part of the exercise.

Yes, this student got into a great school, but more importantly, she learned a lesson that I hope she carries into campus life. Knowing how to make friends will ease the adjustment to dorm life. It will make you a valuable team player in chemistry lab or on the school paper. Making friends takes time and effort, but it makes you an authentic, well-rounded human being.



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