By Alan Gelb
Originally published June 25, 2012.
I love the work that I do with students–helping them to get to where they want to go, helping them discover aspects of themselves that they may never before have considered–but sometimes the work presents complications. I have had a number of situations in which I’ve coached students who have produced really terrific essays and then the worrying begins. Is the essay showing Johnny in a good enough light? Is it making Ellen look lazy/strange/angry? And then I have to make my argument: that the college admissions essay is a very appropriate forum in which to air one’s doubts, frailties, and concerns, as long as you also indicate self-awareness and growth.
Let me give you an example. I worked with a Chinese-American student who was brilliant in math but rather scattered in his personal life. That is to say, he had a tendency to lose things. He decided to write an essay in which he recalled losing his calculator. It was an excellent essay because it juxtaposed his confidence in the logical world (the world of math) with his relative insecurity in the temporal world, and it did so with humor and insight and honesty. And who can’t relate to losing things, yes? But his parents, who came from China, were quite conservative and thought that this essay might not reflect well on him. They didn’t really understand why anyone would want to admit any kind of weakness in this kind of forum.
Fortunately, I was able to convince them that it is not a weakness to admit a weakness. It is confessional writing that most people regard as brave and probing. I also want to add that I sometimes hear, second-hand, these kinds of concerns from college counselors at the most competitive high schools, as reported by the students from those schools that I work with. I tell them that I think the counselors are often as invested in the placement success as the parents and the students—this is their job, after all—and so may not be willing to be as brave as I encourage my students to be. Fortunately, my theories have been validated by the great success of the students I work with, who, by and large, gain admittance to the schools they wish to attend.
So don’t be afraid to show a wart or two. We all have them.
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