I sit down in the Writing Center next to a student I’ll call Not Brady. He’s staring down at the list of Common App questions in despair.
Me: You look stressed. Can I help?
NB: I have to write a college essay and I can’t think of any good answers to any of these questions.
Mistake #1 – Don’t start with the questions. They are all really asking the same thing: Tell us something about yourself. If you start trying to identify a moment you “overcame hardship” or “learned about yourself,” you’ll end up realizing your life is pretty good and feeling guilty for wishing death upon some loved one or illness upon yourself. Instead, start with therapy. Allow me to demonstrate.
Me: Tell me what you do that makes me feel happy (or sad or scared or nervous or excited).
NB: Well, I like playing sports.
Mistake #2 – Don’t be general, be specific. You are looking for just one small moment to write about. You don’t have room for a novel.
Me: Which sport?
Me: What about lacrosse makes you feel good?
NB: When we win.
Me: What was the best win you ever had?
NB: When I was a freshmen we beat Quince Orchard, who was undefeated, in our last game of the season, in overtime.
Mistake #3 – NB is starting to get to a good story. If he stops now, though, he’ll miss the best part – how he felt and what he learned – that’s where the meat of the essay is.
Me: Where were you on the field at the moment of the win?
NB: I was actually on the sidelines.
Me: You weren’t even in the game? Why?
NB: I had just been pulled out, because the coach wanted to give everyone equal playing time.
Me: How did you feel when you were pulled out?
NB: I was furious. I was better than the other kid and I wanted to be out there helping the team.
Me: How did you feel when the winning goal was scored?
NB: It felt so awesome. We had worked so hard.
Me: So when you were pulled out you were thinking about yourself, but then when you won, you were thinking about your team. What did you learn from that, looking back now?
NB: Well, I guess I learned that I’m part of the team whether on the field or on the bench, and that the team is more important than me as an individual.
When NB looked back at the Common App questions, he saw that the story above answers almost every one of them in some way. NB’s essay is about a cliché, “There’s no I in team,” but clichés exist for a reason – they are universally true. As long as NB never mentions the cliché, and simply tells his story, of this one, brief moment in his life, he’ll reveal who he is, what is important to him, and who he wants to be. That’s all the college admissions people are looking for – an honest, open window into WHO YOU ARE.
That’s why I say you have to start with therapy. Therapy is simply someone listening to you and asking questions that push you toward self-knowledge. A good friend can listen and ask those hard questions. A parent, teacher or other adult can also help. Just know that if you are staring at the list of questions, flailing about for an answer, you’re doing it wrong. Put the paper or screen away, go find someone to talk to, and do some therapy.
No shortcuts exist in the quest to discover who you are, and it’s the only quest worth taking. The Common App is inviting you to begin. Open the door and take a step.