Your Family Tragedy Won’t Get You Into College

I've Spent 13 Years Helping Kids Write Admissions Essays. Here's Where They Go Wrong.

November is National College Application Month (yes, there is such a thing), and for millions of students–and their parents–urgent deadlines loom. Applications for University of California and California State University campuses are due November 30. Anxiety is at an all-time high for students as they tackle one of their applications’ greatest challenges–one I know too well–the personal statement.

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For the past 13 years, as both a paid consultant and volunteer mentor, I’ve guided college applicants in Los Angeles through the process of planning and writing their personal statements. My advice for all of them is founded on two simple principles: write it yourself and write it about yourself. It may seem obvious, but it’s a difficult feat to pull off right.

The canned prompts admissions offices require of all applicants don’t help. In response to a question about her favorite book, one of my students, a very high achiever from South Los Angeles, chose Madame Bovary. It made for an essay that was easy to write and that seemed to reveal a few things about her: She was brilliant (which she was), she was studious (which she was), and she would do well in college (which she would, and did).

My advice for all college applicants is founded on two simple principles: write it yourself and write it about yourself. It may seem obvious, but it’s a difficult feat to pull off right.

The problem was the essay didn’t say anything about who she was, although I did give her points for not selecting, as many of my students have, one of the volumes from the Harry Potter series as a favorite. (Liking one of the most popular books ever published is not going to distinguish you from millions of others!) To get a better topic, I asked her, “What do you do?” After asking and re-asking this question a few times, a few different ways, she told me about how, as a middle schooler, she figured out how to get herself permitted into a highly ranked high school, so she would be better prepared for college. Realizing that the kids in her neighborhood could benefit from that same opportunity, she started an after-school program to raise their awareness of transfer opportunities, and mentored seven kids through the process. She did this on her own, with no adult supervision.

Now that was the stuff of a real personal statement. This student ended up attending an Ivy League school on a full scholarship and is currently applying to law school.

If some students pick themes that are too inconsequential, others err to the opposite extreme. Somewhere along the way, high school seniors have become convinced that if they haven’t split the atom or won Olympic gold, their life experiences are too pedestrian to stand as representations of who they are and what they might bring to a college campus. Many attempt to attach themselves to some grand endeavor, movement, or philosophy that has nothing to do with who they are or what they actually do in real life. They write about being part of something larger, so they will seem larger, which works in fending off mountain lions, but not college admissions essays.

One very bright student I worked with attended a prominent private high school in the San Fernando Valley and earned top grades. She identified herself as a writer and always earned praise for her school essays. However, she did not possess a doctorate in media studies. Whoever wrote her personal statement likely did hold that degree, as it included statements about how advertising in media served to embed capitalist ideology in viewers’ minds and included citations!

Note to parents: adult-written personal statements can be spotted a mile away! Plus, the student wanted to go to film school (presumably to make art, not remap neurological perceptions of commercial messaging), and said very little in the personal statement about what courses she wanted to study or what kind of career she wanted afterward. The student did not gain acceptance at any of the highly competitive film schools in the Los Angeles area. Had the essay been written about a film she worked on, its aesthetic sensibility, the pivotal moment when she knew she wanted to communicate and contribute through film, it might have been compelling.

Several well-meaning teachers and other adult guides reviewed the essays from each of these students before I saw them and pronounced them very well written and appropriate for college applications. And that’s part of the problem, too. Teenagers receive many different messages, mostly from us adults, about what is appropriate or interesting to write about. Often the adults are wrong. They’re not thinking of themselves as harried readers in college admissions offices who have little capacity to read a full (even if it’s brief!) essay with careful attention.

I tell all my students to think of the admissions process as if it were a dinner party. If everyone invited was incredibly smart but exactly the same, the party would be boring and possibly a failure. A robust, entertaining, memorable, and even important dinner party needs depth, diversity, variety, surprise and, most importantly, potential. Potential for what? That’s the fun (if hard to define) part: potential for whatever each individual guest may bring.

Along these lines, there are some topics–like most common dinner party fodder–that are difficult to make fresh, no matter how well written. I wish applicants would avoid writing about that one special camper they helped, the transformative nature of their volunteer work at a nursing home, how eye-opening it was to clean the river that one day, how much they admire their parents (who are almost always great people but rarely seem admirable to those outside the family), how proud they were the first time they drove on the freeway, how much they really, really, really want to attend a particular school, why they hate or love the president, or the governor, or, once, the vice president (because he had to try harder, just like the student did!).

The essay shouldn’t include a laundry list of challenges or even tragedies students have survived with no reflection on what these events have contributed to the people they are today. The least fun part of being a college admissions guide is telling someone his or her family tragedy is not interesting enough to get that person into college. It should be, and it could be, if the student interprets for the reader what she learned because of it. Everyone encounters challenges, but the way a challenge shapes a person is the ultimate decoder ring.

Of course, I know the advice of any one college admissions coach can’t make or break a student’s future. There are many factors–grades, test scores, application pool trends and volume, income–not within the control of the coach or sometimes even the student. I tell my students they’ll be OK, and they always are. And I tell them that they are enough, right now, at the moment they sit down to write their personal statements. They have the best material already, in their heads and in their lives. They just need to get it onto the page–and then make sure to check it for spelling and punctuation.

Need more? A step-by-step guide is here.


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