Eight years ago, when my son was born, I made the decision to quit my job as a college counselor in order to dedicate myself to writing full time.
It was a difficult decision, though, because I loved that job. I loved talking to teenagers every day, hearing about their successes and their failures, and seeing them evolve from timid ninth graders into confident seniors. But the thing I loved most about that job was helping kids write their college essays. There was no better feeling than taking a kid who was convinced that her life was so boring she couldn't possibly have anything to write about, and helping her craft a meaningful, interesting essay that got to the heart of who she was.
Since then, I’ve tried to find opportunities to help kids whenever I can - a nephew of a friend, the daughter of someone's employee, the grandson of a teacher at my kids preschool. But no matter how smart and motivated these kids are, it’s always the same story: when it comes to writing a college essay, they're always terrified.
I get it. It’s daunting, to try to say something about who you are in two-hundred and fifty words. And difficult, when talking about who you are has to be framed within the construct of what famous person you’d like to have dinner with, or what page 217 of your autobiography might look like. If you have a teenager who’s going through this right now, or maybe if you just remember your own college application days, just reading the words “Tell Us Something About Yourself” is enough to make you feel nauseated.
When I started out as a counselor, I didn’t have children yet, but I learned a lot about parent/child dynamics. Mostly, I learned that teenagers think their parents are total morons who never know what they’re talking about. Which is too bad, because now that I’ve got older kids of my own, I've realized that writing a college essay is actually a lot like parenting.
For example, I always tell my students to start with a moment - one moment - that made them think differently about someone or something, and write about that. Write about how they were before the moment, what happened during the moment, and how they had changed afterwards. And isn't that what parenting is all about? Finding small moments, and making them teachable ones? When kids inevitably show up with a first draft about how they won the school election, or the big game, or the prize at science fair, I almost always tell them to throw it away. Bring me an essay, I tell them, about the time you lost the election, or blew the big game, or came in second at science fair.
Why? Well, because we all know that it's not how you act when you win, it's how you act when you lose that says something about the kind of person you are. Sound familiar?
And when it comes to guidelines for writing an essay, all you have to do is think about the kinds of things we tell our kids on a daily basis: Nobody likes someone who brags. It's not nice manners to talk about money. Don't say mean things about people. Respect the opinions of others. Don’t lie. Say what you mean, not what you think people want to hear. Be yourself.