I recently spent a week at one of my happy places—Rancho La Puerta, a wellness resort in Baja, California, Mexico.
Early morning mountain hikes, healthy smoothies by the pool, challenging yoga practices, and talks on nurturing your emotional health.
We become stressed when we focus on situations where we have no control, like the weather. Or the number of students from your high school who are applying to the same colleges you are.
We manage our stress better when we focus on the things we can control or we have influence over. Like deciding to apply to a broader range of schools than your classmates. Like choosing to get to bed earlier, exercise smarter, or eat healthier.
Next time you find yourself getting stressed, ask yourself whether the situation is within your control or influence. If the answer is yes, then take action. If the answer is no, do your best to let it go.
As Śāntideva, an 8th century Indian Buddhist monk, wrote: “If the problem can be solved why worry? If the problem cannot be solved worrying will do you no good.”
“Samantha” was one of my favorite clients last year. A hard worker with parents who had endured multiple layoffs, she wanted to write about what she had learned from her family’s experience.
There was great material here—she had stepped up to help take care of her younger brothers; her parents’ struggles had motivated her to work even harder; and she had written about a tender moment with her dad at the dining room when he was surrounded by job applications.
But the essay didn’t work—at least not at first.
It was a dull read. Too negative, too much about her family, not enough about her.
We worked together through multiple drafts and eventually came up with a creative way to present her story. Great admissions results: Samantha was admitted to nearly every school she applied to.
But what stuck with me the most was Samantha’s attitude. The kind and thoughtful girl who showed up in her essays was the same girl in real life.
Her emails responding to my feedback were filled with gratitude for my help. She shared her acceptances with me as they arrived. She wrote me a thank you note when the process was over. This girl, so lovely on the page, was also so lovely as a person.
I’m guessing the college admissions officers felt the same way.
In last week’s post, I discussed whether an essay can make or break an admissions decision. The answer: it depends. If you don’t have “the goods”—the grades and test scores—a good or even great essay will rarely push you from the “Deny” to the “Accept” pile. But if you land in the “Maybe” pile, a strong essay can make a difference.
How about if you write a “bad” essay? Can it push you from “Accept” or “Maybe” to “Deny”?
Bad essays come in many forms:
- Poorly written:
- Careless grammar, misspellings, incorrect vocabulary usage, convoluted.
- Solution: Do a careful self-edit and ask a teacher or essay professional to review your draft.
- No point or no story:
- Wanders, recounts a history rather than telling a story, leaves reader at end wondering what was the point.
- Solution: Be very clear on the point you are trying to make. Can you say it in one sentence? If not, keep working until you can. Then edit your essay to ensure that every sentence is helping you make this point.
- Tired topics that make admissions officers’ eyes glaze over, such as:
- “I tried out for the team and didn’t make it, and then I tried out again and I made it. I am really determined and work really hard.”
- “I went on this community service trip and discovered that everyone is really the same. And I got more out of the experience than the people I was helping.”
- Using clichés in your essay, such as:
- cutting edge, I learned my lesson, I always learn from my mistakes, I know my dreams will come true, I can make a difference, _________ is my passion, I no longer take my loved ones for granted, these lessons are useful both on and off the field, I realize the value of hard work and perseverance, was the greatest lesson of all, I know what it is to triumph over adversity, xx opened my eyes to a whole new world.
- Solution: If you write something you’ve heard said the same way before, it’s probably a cliché. Circle those phrases and try to make the same point in an original way. Ask a teacher or essay professional to review your essay for clichés.
- Unflattering self-portrait:
- Tells a story that shows you in a poor light and makes you unlikeable, such as:
- “I used to be a mean girl. (75% of the essay is spent on all the “bad” things the student used to do). Then I changed and I became a compassionate leader.” (25% of essay devoted to the “good,” to the change.)
- “I used to be a selfish player on the soccer team, only thinking of myself. (75% of essay.) Then I saw the light and I became a selfless leader and was elected captain.” (25% of essay.)
- Solution: Choose a story that focuses on your strengths, not your weaknesses. If you choose a story that shows how you have changed, make sure the vast majority of the essay is dedicated to the “new” you, the “changed” you, the “positive” you.
The “Bad Essay” is to be avoided at all costs. Even if you are qualified academically, if you come off as unlikeable, arrogant, careless or lazy, your admissions file can easily be tossed into the Deny pile.
Don’t self-sabotage and give colleges a reason to deny your application! Take advantage of Montauk Writer‘s free tips for writing effective essays.
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The short answer: it depends.
The longer answer: If you don’t have the grades and the test scores a college expects from its applicants—in other words, if you aren’t academically prepared—it is extremely unlikely for your essay to push you over into the Accept pile. Even the most interesting, unique, or creative essay.
Penn’s dean of admissions said he guessed that the essay played a role in admissions decisions for one out of every seven applicants for the Class of 2016. Admissions officers at smaller schools often spend more time reading essays, particularly when SAT or ACT scores are not required. At larger universities, particularly state schools, admissions teams simply don’t have the time to give each essay a careful read.
So do essays make a difference at all? While a GREAT essay won’t make up for poor grades or test scores, if you have the goods, a GREAT essay can distinguish you from the pack of other qualified applicants.
And what about the BAD essay? Can it move you from the Accept to the Deny pile?
Stay tuned to find out.
In Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, author Anne Lamott recounts her late father’s advice to her brother:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’
I’m guessing that nearly all of us have had this experience of overwhelm—whether it’s something “big” like navigating a major life change or something “small” like piles of laundry we can’t seem to deal with. In each case, “bird by bird” is sound advice. Pick up a t-shirt, fold it, start a pile. Repeat. T-shirt by t-shirt.
The high school students I work with on their college application essays often feel overwhelmed. I don’t know where to start. How many essays do I need to write? How can I possibly do this on top of everything else on my list?
I help students tackle their essays, bird by bird. First, we brainstorm, come up with ideas. Then they write one paragraph, then another and another. A draft emerges. Suddenly the pile is a little less daunting. We keep working, bird by bird, deadline by deadline, until they’ve hit SUBMIT for the final time.
Bird by bird. The perfect recipe to defeat overwhelm.
Part 1 and Part 2 of Jenny’s Story, in case you missed them.
Jenny had lots of funny ideas to write about—Teletubbies, quesadillas made-to-order in Math class, Ashton Kutcher, among them.
But could any of these funny ideas be transformed into a story? A story worth sharing with college admissions officers?
As a next step, I asked Jenny to outline each idea as follows:
- Where and when does this story take place? List the specific location(s) and time(s).
- Is there a main character in the story? Is it you?
- Do you start in one place and end up in another by the end of the story?
- What HAPPENS to cause you to move or change? Write that down.
She looked first at her Ashton Kutcher idea (she had told her little sister that “Ashton Kutcher” was a swear word).
- Where and when does this story take place? List the specific location(s) and time(s). In the family car and in the living room in front of the TV. At various times in the past six months, but a definite moment in last scene in front of the TV.
- Is there a main character in the story? Is it you? There are two main characters, Jenny and her sister, but this story is told from Jenny’s point of view, so she is the protagonist.
- Do you start in one place and end up in another by the end of the story? Yes, Jenny starts by thinking it would be fun to play a practical joke on her sister, and at the end, the joke is exposed and Jenny reflects on the meaning of the experience.
- What HAPPENS to cause you to move or change? Write that down. A TV show starring Ashton K comes on and Jenny’s sister realizes Ashton is an actor, not a swear word.
Stay tuned for Part 4 to see whether this story can work as a topic for Jenny’s college admissions essay.
Last week we met my client Jenny. You can read the first part of her story here.
“Yes!” I said to Jenny. “You can write about funny!”
She’d already told me a few stories that had me in hysterics. How she kept a Teletubby costume in her locker that she trotted out regularly. How she convinced her little sister that “Ashton Kutcher” was a swear word. How she set up a quesadilla business in her pre-calc class.
A lot of students get stuck at this point,not knowing how to go from idea to words on the page. They stare at their blank screen. It stares back.
The key to getting started? Break down the task into manageable chunks.
“Start by writing a paragraph for each idea,” I said to her. “Right now, don’t worry about grammar or how it’s all going to come together—just get your ideas down on the page.”
I say to students: pretend you’re a potter at the beginning of a project. First, you need to throw a lump of clay on the wheel.
She smiled.”I can write about Ashton Kutcher?”
I smiled back. She was ready to get started.