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Tell Us About Yourself: Easier Said than Done?

August 20, 2013

With senior year barely under way for some, and just around the corner for others, there is already one "homework" assignment that seems to be occupying the minds of all. The college essay(s) will never go into the high school grade book, they will never be returned to you full of the red ink scribbling of a teacher's feedback, and likely you will never know what any admissions committee thought of it. Yet this assignment may garner more of your attention, more of your thoughts, more of your STRESS than any lengthy research paper on the Austro-Hungarian Empire or analysis of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. And all this for just 500 or so words that will require no research, no prior expertise, and no lit review.

Perhaps I've built up the drama to an unreasonable degree. But before I attempt to bring you down to earth, forgive me for upping the pressure just a little more: we read every word of those essays. Okay, now allow me to take some inflation out of that hot air balloon of Anxious Oxide as I remind you of one basic truth when it comes to crafting these essays – there is no right answer. There are as many"right" ways to write a college essay as there are people applying to college. Free yourself from the burdens of getting graded, from the expectations of precedent, and embrace what is your greatest advantage in all of this: you will be the only person who will write THAT essay.

I know, I know. I've gotten you no further in your quest to discover what the what behind your essay should be. Well, the what is actually the easiest of "W's" to answer: the what is you. (I suppose the who is you too, but we're one First Base joke away from making this an Abbot and Costello routine).  Keep it simple: it's about you and all your many forms and facets, your myriad experiences and expertise, your original outlooks and observations. You must feel you coming through in your essay. Some call this "voice", which is a bit of an ironic metaphor, seeing as how you write your essays to admissions offices rather than deliver them as a monologue. However, I've got a trick that can help test this, and after I share it with you, you'll be surprised you didn't already think of it yourself. It's easy really; just speak it.

Here's how it works. Once you've written your essay (we're jumping ahead here, I realize), go into a room where you can close the door. Once secure in a private space, read your essay aloud. I don't want you to just plow through it monotone style like some of us do when asked to read aloud in English class (Mercutio's final screed against the warring houses of Capulet and Montague has been forever tainted by my 10th grade memory of classmate, Kevin, not well known for his oratorical enthusiasm, or love of Shakespeare, delivering the line "a plague on both your houses" with not an exclamation but an ellipsis).

No, read it aloud as it deserves to be read....with personality. If this makes you slightly uncomfortable, let me remind you that this should be done alone, preferably out of earshot of nosy siblings or prying parents. Limit distraction, reduce inhibition, free yourself from self-consciousness, and just speak.

Here's the kicker; if at the end of this little Gettysburg Address you feel embarrassed by what you just said – perhaps because it didn't sound like you, it sounded like someone else – reconsider just how well your essay, in its current state, is conveying your true voice. That's all we're really looking for from the admissions side: a voice that is interesting. And any voice can be interesting, so long as it is true. My underlying belief is that we are all interesting people, it's simply our ability of expression that will separate that guy in those Dos Equis ads – "The Most Interesting Man Alive" — from my three year old niece Stella — still utterly lacking the concept of the Three Act story-telling structure when trying to summarize for me the plot of Despicable Me 2.

So pick up that pen (or your 21st century equivalent) and get to writing. You're the student and the teacher for this assignment, so throw the grading rubric aside and do the one thing that only you know how to do: tell us about yourself


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