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Demystifying College App Essays: Here’s One for the Juniors & Seniors Out There

As a former tutor and college admission office assistant, I am well acquainted with just how crazed and stressful college application days can be. However, it wasn’t until this past summer when I was helping some prospective students think through the brambles of college application questions that I realized just how milky and obfuscating these prompts and questions can be.

Here’s just one of the many tangled questions my poor students faced:

“Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

While on the face of it this prompt may seem simple enough, upon closer examination, it can quickly become clear just how unclear and muddled things truly are. First, there is the “Some students” comment, which suggests that there are students out there so water-thin as to have identities capable of complete capture within the confines of a college application. Insulting, confusing, and arrogant, yes, but above all this phrasing is simply confusing. So then, for those few special students with some deeper, more complex identity, what question exactly are they answering – or, more precisely, what question is this prompt actually asking? What are the readers of such a prompt looking for?

First, they’re looking to see that you take enough confidence in yourself to read such a prompt and agree: Why yes, I am an individual with a complex identity that’s yet to be captured by this standard application.

Second, they’re looking for a story. Note the wording, “please share your story”—this implies not only that the reader wants something personal and engaging (i.e. not academic or even overly formal), but also something that is uniquely and entirely you.

And that’s the tricky part. While the you in this prompt about identity and stories may seem like the most obvious element, it’s also the element that most student writers seem quickest to neglect. Oftentimes this prompt is answered with a story regarding some learning experience or “life altering” event—and while these would certainly be acceptable starting places for an answer to such a prompt, it’s in the description of the experience or the event that students often lose the “them-ness” of their story, burying their own specialness and unique identity in the details of a mission trip, life lesson, or mentor. Don’t let the you be lost from these stories—the reader, after all, isn’t interested in reading about a mission trip to aid impoverished children or about the awesomeness of your eighth grade basketball coach; they’re interested in you. So, when you find yourself faced with something like this prompt, a question that wants you to at once agree that your identity is too big for a college essay and then challenges you to still try and cram it into one, don’t let yourself be distracted by the trappings—touch quickly on the setting and circumstance of your story and then get to the protagonist, our hero: YOU.

And then there are the chestnuts like:

“Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.”

Sigh! It’s prompts like this one that make me roll my eyes and respond, Please briefly elaborate on at least one of your motives or goals for making this ridiculous request of exhausted college applicants. My recommendation for any poor students faced with such a question? Get straight to the point.

First, pick only your most interesting and unique activity or work experience. Again, this may seem to go without saying, but oftentimes students will reach out for some less-intriguing office job experience because it seems more “adult” or “professional” somehow. But really, I think we can all agree that we’d much rather read that crazy story about you being the Cow for your local Ben & Jerry’s Free Cone Day. This story would do much more than simply highlight something you learned about conflict management (those people who “save spots” in line for friends? yeah, those people should know that that is NOT cool!); this story would also better entertain your readers while showcasing just how brave and fun you can be. Moral of the story: Never underestimate the power of an entertaining story. If you can entertain your readers while sharing something sincere about yourself, it’ll stick in their memory better, give them a better overall experience of reviewing your application, and leave them with a much more impressive show of your writing ability.

Second (and again), get straight to the point. A lot of students end up wasting time and words on describing the job or extracurricular activity itself when, really, this is yet another question about you and your experiences. No one wants to read about the job qualifications or responsibilities of Whatever Office or about the meeting notes of Yeah-Yeah-Yeah Club. These readers want to know A) What Job/Activity, B) Why You Chose It For Elaboration, and C) YOU. And, if you hadn’t already guessed, B and C are definitely the most important elements of this equation. Jump off of A as soon as you can in order to get to the meat of the story (that’s you!).

Remember, they wouldn’t be asking about this if they weren’t hoping to learn yet more about how you react to different situations, what you’ve learned, what challenges you’ve undertaken, and/or what experiences have inspired you.

Then there are gems like this:

“XXXX University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to XXXX.”

….really?

The truth is, these questions are never as simple as they seem on first read. So, take your time. Consider them from all angles and all word choices. And then get straight to your point—don’t make anyone wait around to find out how fascinating you are or what goals you plan to achieve.

And here are a few extra tips and readings to help you along your way:

  • College Board’s “8 Tips for Crafting Your Best College Essay
    • Especially, brainstorm and be specific! First do the work of reflecting on what your strongest traits and most unique experiences are, and then pick out one to three (depending on the prompt) to start getting specific about – bring out the sensory details, the reflective details, the details that give it all meaning particular to you
  • US News’ “10 Tips for Writing the College Application Essay
    • The highlights: be concise, honest, and coherent. Don’t let your rush to share your accomplishments and experiences muddle the storyline or embellish the facts. Be genuine and strive for clarity.
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Reading Free

Book bannings are as old as books themselves, but the fact that they persist into today’s America—an America packed with screens of every kind, screens allowing for easy internet access and thus access to any number of challenging, unusual, and even obscene materials—is simply mystifying to me. Yet still books are banned from schools and formally challenged by parents on a shockingly regular basis. Only this past September, Highland Park ISD (Dallas, TX) Superintendent Dawson Orr approved the suspension of seven books: The Art of Racing in the RainThe Glass Castle; The Working Poor: Invisible in AmericaSiddharthaThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianAn Abundance of Katherines; and Song of Solomon.

To Orr’s credit, however (and after some impressive backlash from alumni, students, national media, and other parents), he canceled the suspension.

“I made the decision in an attempt to de-escalate the conflict, and I readily admit that it had the opposite effect,” he said in an email to parents. “I take full responsibility for the decision, and I apologize for the disruption it has caused.

“All the titles that were temporarily suspended will be restored to the approved reading list,” he said.

(qtd. from Melissa Repko’s “Highland Park ISD reverses book suspensions at high school“)

And while it’s upsetting, baffling, and ludicrous to ban books from students (at least in my humble opinion) in any circumstance (after all, if a book is really that troubling to a student, then let the student decide for themselves and ask for a substitute—not the parents), it is still impressive to see a leader not only take responsibility for a poor decision, but also take swift action to correct the mistake. According to Orr, he originally agreed to suspend the books after receiving feedback from hundreds of parents. But why did these parents feel a need to object so powerfully to these texts? Considering that kids can now get their fill of violence, abuse, sexual content, and hard language from not only the internet but basic cable as well, why would parents take such issue with their children encountering these kinds of materials in the thoughtful, more personal world of a book—especially when it’s to be an experience shepherded by a teacher, an experience intended to provoke deeper thought and consideration of such issues rather than simple titillation?

By now, most of us have read and come to love certain books that were once banned or challenged in the States for their content, books like Mark Twain’s (1884) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (first banned in Concord, MA in 1885 for being “trash and suitable only for the slums”); Toni Morrison’s (1987) Beloved; Ray Bradbury’s (1954) Fahrenheit 451; Ernest Hemingway’s (1940) For Whom the Bell Tolls; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1925) The Great Gatsby; Maurice Sendak’s (1963) Where the Wild Things Are; J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series; and even Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series.(qtd. from Banned Books Week)

Dee Brown’s (1970) Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, was also “banned by a school district official in Wisconsin in 1974 because the book might be polemical and they wanted to avoid controversy at all costs. ‘If there’s a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it?’ the official stated.” (qtd. from Banned Books Week)  This reasoning is, to me, one of the most disturbing of all. Not only is this thought process counter to all things educational, but it’s also one of the most despicable examples of “the easy way out” that I can think of, one of the most un-American, thoughtless, and cowardly.

And perhaps that’s the heart of the problem: cowardice. For what other reason could there be to attempt to ban information from kids? If material is truly that worrisome or potentially disturbing for particular children—perhaps kids who themselves have suffered abuses or traumas that would be too painful to relive through a book—then certainly there is cause to provide them with substitute options. But why should this mean banning certain books from all students of a certain school district? It’s fear—it’s the attempt to forcibly impose one’s beliefs and feelings upon others.

So, thank you to Superintendent Orr for taking responsibility and action to reverse a poor decision—thank you for agreeing to not impose the beliefs of some parents upon the children of all in your community. And thank you to all those school officials and parents who stand up regularly for their children and their children’s friends’ right to learn and explore without prejudice or fear. When we begin to fear information, education, and exploration, we become obstacles to progress—both our own and our society’s. We don’t have to like or approve of every book or be glad every book was written. But none of these feelings should give anyone the right to make such determinations for others.

Further Reading Suggestions:

Getting Gritty

The latest and hottest education buzzword is Grit.

Consider Tovia Smith’s “Does Teaching Kids To Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead?”: “Around the nation, schools are beginning to see grit as key to students’ success – and just as important to teach as reading and math. Experts define grit as persistence, determination, and resilience” – it’s one of the hardest qualities to instill in people, and perhaps especially so in today’s American culture of extremes (where parents are often labelled as either helicopters or completely checked out, and where nearly all students are made to feel entirely risk-averse when it comes to their education (such that they are either labelled as uncreative test-taking machines or as lazy, dumb, and/or entitled brats)).

But still, it’s grit that has everyone up in arms in the education world right now, and it’s grit that has everyone scratching their heads as they try to find new means of supporting and encouraging grit-development in themselves and their kids.

Dr. Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for being the first to coin “grit” as the next step, as that special mystery ingredient needed to better prepare new generations for the future. Much of Duckworth’s story and work is laid bare in Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. In How Children Succeed, Tough discusses not only Duckworth’s research, but also the work of other prominent grit-studiers like Dr. Walter Mischel of Columbia University. In particular, Tough is careful to explain Mischel’s (now famous) Marshmallow Test (it’s a fascinating chapter!). The marshmallow test is deceptively simple: In his test group, Mischel gives each child a single marshmallow and then tells them that they can either eat the one marshmallow immediately, or wait a few minutes and get to eat two marshmallows. It’s a test of delayed gratification, of self-control, and of being able to imagine a new, perhaps sweeter future. But there’s more to grit than having the willpower to delay gratification—grit also encompasses the ability to face down and persevere against mistakes, setbacks, and rejection.

Grit is also, in other words, the ability to accept failure as a part of life and learning, rather than as a source of shame or stupidity.

Take, for example, the ability to expertly play an instrument. Many people have this dream or desire, but very few have the ability. Why? Most people likely could become at least decent musicians if they chose to practice often enough—but that’s just it. The choosing to act. The deciding to act. The act of taking purposeful action.

While many people may go into music lessons with the understanding that mastering an instrument takes time and practice, few people have the ability to handle the kind of delay in gratification necessary to really put in all that time, and perhaps even fewer have the ability to then also persevere despite any and all roadblocks that might crop up: lack of natural talent, consistent mistakes that may feel embarrassing, not wanting to practice for feelings of embarrassment, not placing in a music competition, receiving bad reviews, etc.

Grit, as the popular argument now goes, may be the answer to these challenges.

After all, what is natural talent worth if someone’s not willing or doesn’t feel able to put in the work necessary to let said talent flourish?

As Jonathan Rowson, Scottish chess grand master, once wrote: “When it comes to ambition, it is crucial to distinguish between ‘wanting’ something and ‘choosing’ it.” (qtd. in Tough 130) –An idea that hits directly on Duckworth’s theories regarding grit and success: “The problem with self-control techniques like the ones that the most disciplined marshmallow resisters employed is that they work only when a child knows what he or she wants.” (Tough 64)

But how can we as teachers, friends, parents, and students begin to better foster this element of grit in ourselves and each other?

While there’s no hard and fast way to “teach” grit, people are coming up with some pretty interesting and inventive techniques for trying to foster this elusive trait. Here are just a few ideas to consider:

  • According to Vicki Zakrzewski’s “Two Ways to Foster Grit” (with Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, University of California, Berkeley): 1) “Teach students about the impact of thoughts and beliefs on their ability to succeed. Students who have created a habit of telling themselves that they are bad at everything and that failure is inevitable will have a hard time with grit.” And 2) “Teach students how to work with their emotions. … For example, when a student who holds the belief, ‘I am bad at math, therefore I am a bad person’ (a common belief amongst some students who fear failure) faces an obstacle, emotions such as fear, despair, or anger may arise so quickly that the student doesn’t have time to change his or her thinking to fend off the emotion. … To help these students, educators should first teach them to recognize and label emotional responses so that they become aware when their emotions are spinning out of control. They should then follow this with methods for calming difficult emotions.” (This really is a fascinating article. You can (and probably should) read the entire thing: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/two_ways_to_foster_grit)
  • Create safe spaces for you and your kids to learn, take risks, and make mistakes. Risks and mistakes should be thought of as simply a natural part of the learning process – not as a sign of failure, weakness, lack of talent, or stupidity. As Smith further explains in her “Does Teaching Kids To Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead?”: “One way to make kids more tenacious, the thinking goes, is to show them how grit has been important to the success of others, and how mistakes and failures are normal parts of learning — not reasons to quit.” –and Jason Baehr, professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, agrees, stating that: “‘You can create a classroom culture in which struggle and risk-taking is valued more than just getting the right answer.’” You can also try talking with your kids about who their heroes are and how grit has helped those heroes succeed—perhaps an avid reader of Stephen King might look to the years when King struggled with rejection letter after rejection letter from publishers; perhaps a sports fan might look to some of the losing games his or her favorite players have endured during their athletic careers; and so on and so on.

Works Consulted: