Why it's impossible to write a good college admission essay
If America's teenagers revealed their true essences, high-minded universities would flee in terror
As the parent of a rising high school senior, I've been to my fair share of college information sessions lately. The admissions officer always concludes with the same set of comments about the application: namely, that the college essay must capture your true and authentic voice and reveal the essence of who you really are. Exactly that line, 100 percent of the time.
I look over at my son every time, his eyes glazed over. I love this kid, and the essence of who he really is astounds me. But there is no way in hell that he, flipping through his Instagrams and quietly plotting his next meal, is going to have an easy time summing up his essential him-ness in 500 words.
Heck, I'm 45 and I am just beginning to find my voice. Show me a 17-year-old kid who's able access his true and authentic voice in a way that shares the essence of who he really is, and I'll show you a kid who maybe doesn't need to go to college.
My college essay went something like this:
I am the student body president of my high school. In this capacity it has been my job, along with the rest of the student council, to review our school's honor code. Upon this review we found that a discrepancy existed between the school's policies on cheating and stealing. Heretofore, this had not been addressed. I strive to excel in all areas of my life, and I hope to bring this energy to college so that I can make an impact there as well.
They read this, and they let me into college. "Every class could use a good solid narc," they must have said. "Let's let this honor nerd in."
If I had really wanted to share my 17-year-old essence in my true authentic voice, I would have submitted this:
I'm so tired from all this schoolwork and this thing with the student council. I'm sorry I even brought it up, because now the whole honor code needs to be re-written. Luckily Michelle Jaffe is senior class president and smarter than me and she'll do it. Whatever, Michelle. My friends and I go to the beach a lot. My friend Julie and I like to stop for grilled cheese and fries on our way, and we've found that one place has better grilled cheese and another has better fries, so we stop twice. I think it's important to know what you want and go out of your way to get it. There's a boy I like, and I really hope he calls me. Also, I'd like to go to college because it's time to move out and my friends are all going.
This is the girl that showed up on campus, the one with the two-part plan for procuring the best in fried food. There was more to me at this point, most of which I can only see in retrospect. There were buds of character traits, hints of interests. But, at 17, they were not clear to me in a way that I could have explained to a team of admissions officers thousands of miles away.
I think a better way to get to know these kids would be to ask a series of questions about their habits. "How often do you make your bed?" would be a good place to start. Studies show that people who make their beds have a whole host of positive life habits. And it might shed a little light on the kids who describe themselves as "dedicated to service." If you really wake up in the morning looking for new ways to serve, you probably start by making your bed. Zero percent of the teenagers currently living in my house makes their bed on a regular basis.
So my kid is going to write this essay in the next few months. I've been politely asked not to help, which makes me want to strangle him and hug him at the same time. I hope he gets across some of the real things about himself. He likes math, but not as much as he likes his friends. He likes history, but not as much as he likes Chipotle. That's the kid who's going to show up at college, ready to figure the rest out.