When students sit down to write their college application essays, they're expected to share their inner worlds with distant, anonymous readers who hold a great deal of power over their future.
It’s no surprise, then, that students are reluctant to tell their stories – even if they have really good stories. I see this hesitation all the time in my own students, and my guest – Megan Johnson of Best You Consulting Group – does too. The question is, what do we do with this feeling?
My students tend to fall into one of three categories:
They think they have nothing interesting to say.
They think that a good essay involves kicking the winning goal or going on a mission trip.
They are hesitant to tell their secrets to strangers.
The students who fall into the first group often feel that because they haven’t encountered tragedy in their life, no one will find them interesting and therefore, they’ll never be admitted. While tragedy can make for a good essay, it’s not your only path to admission. Everyone is different. Your “boring and regular” life may not have seen tragedy, but you still have something to say.
The second group feels like their essay needs to fall into the safe zone. Volunteering and sports are “safe."
To students in the third category, I understand the hesitation. Will a group of strangers judge me for what I’ve done or what I’ve been through? In short, no. They are longing to get to know you. They are not judging and they understand that sharing your story is personal and completely respect that.
When I served on the admissions committee at Fuqua, Duke’s MBA program, I read a lot (I mean A LOT) of applications. My favorite essay at Fuqua asks for “25 random things about you." Those who repeated pieces of information from their resume or only provided surface-level (safe) information about themselves were not memorable when it came time for admissions officers to present at committee meetings. The students who went deeper, were vulnerable, shared a story about something that went wrong, were funny - they were memorable. I felt like I got to know them personally by reading their essays. I bonded with them. As I result, when it came time to make admissions decisions, I fought for them.
I often tell my students that this is where admissions officers are coming from, but it’s great to have some hard proof! And it makes sense: admissions officers aren’t robots - they’re real people who want to feel connected to other real people.
Let me ask a little more about your third category - the students who are wary of sharing their secrets with strangers. You and I both encourage our students to share. In your view, how much should they share? Is there such a thing as over-sharing? Or are these the wrong questions?
I do think there’s such a thing as oversharing. Vulnerable, yes. Vulgar, no. In some ways, I think the students who choose to overshare are afraid that their lives are boring and that they need to shock the reader in order to get attention.
As students begin drafting essays, I think they need to ask themselves why. Why am I sharing this particular story? What does it say about me? Is this how I want to be remembered?
I’m interested in your take, Matt. Does all this talk of oversharing scare students into playing it safe?
I hope not! I’m all for honesty and vulnerability - the more, the better. But as you say, it has to be honesty with the right motivations behind it. Just trying to shock the reader will almost certainly backfire, and for two reasons: one, because admissions readers have seen just about everything before, and two, because telling lurid stories often involves cheapening your own experiences. It’s painful to see students treat the most sensitive moments in their own lives - or in the lives of their loved ones - as currency to be traded in an admissions game. And naturally, doing so doesn’t inspire confidence among admissions readers, either.
Confidence strikes me as central to the whole essay-writing process. Students who have some basic sense of their own dignity - who trust that their own experiences are valuable, and who don’t feel a constant need to compare themselves to others - often end up writing the essays that imprint themselves in readers’ minds. And a big part of my role is reminding students of that truth, and helping them see it for themselves.
I couldn’t agree more on the confidence piece! I think a lack of confidence makes a student fall into one of the three buckets that I described earlier. It takes confidence to feel like your story matters, to not play it safe or to share something that feels personal. Borrowing from Augusten Burroughs, I think it means letting go of other people’s perceptions that are out of your control and granting yourself some basic space to work.
Matt, any closing advice for high school students trying to find confidence in their writing?
I think you said it perfectly! Of course, that kind of confidence can be hard to generate and maintain, and it helps to have support as you go through the process - a family member, a friend, or a professional coach. It’s also important for students to remember that writing well about your own life is hard - it’s a real skill, one that takes time to develop just like any other. If you walk into this process thinking you’re going to sit down and slap together a high-quality essay in a few quick sessions, you’re probably setting yourself up for frustration. But if go into the process humbly, curious to see what you might learn and how you might share your discoveries, you’ll do beautifully.