College Essay Dilemma: I am imperfect/I am awesome

May 12, 2014

Here is a frequently asked question:

How can I honestly reveal an imperfection in a college application essay but also write an essay that prompts a college admissions officer to say,  “She (He) will be an awesome student here.”

A May 9, 2014 New York Times story by Ron Lieber called “Four Stand-out Essays About Money” catapulted me to write this blog entry examining one of the essays, which ultimately helped its writer get admitted to Harvard.  Lieber asked  Jennifer Delahunty, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Kenyon College, to comment on an essay by a young man named Andy Duehren.  Dean Delahunty noted that she admired the vulnerability and insight in Andy’s essay about his father’s job loss. But how did Andy’s vulnerability sound like a strength in his essay?  Read on.

Your Own Vulnerability Can Be a Good Thing

When writing a college essay, there is a fine line between being honest about your vulnerability in an acceptable way (so that a reader says “I like him; he’ll be a successful student here”) versus being honest about your vulnerability in a way that makes others feel embarrassed for you, pity you, or feel less of you and your abilities (“I think we will pass on this one.”)

How did Andy walk the line to appear likeable rather than, for example, a thoughtless jerk?

First, Andy wrote clearly about what he experienced:

“I became more critical, more attentive to his flaws and shortcomings,” he wrote of his father. “He lost his glasses, got linguini when we asked for rigatoni at the grocery store, and forgot my friends’ names. At family dinner he sat largely silent until he interrupted with a non sequitur or unrelated question.”

Andy’s word pictures about his father’s actions are so concise that we know exactly what Andy is talking about.  For example, Andy said his father “lost his glasses” rather than a vague statement like “he couldn’t do what he used to” or “he lost stuff.”

Then Andy reflected on his own observation:

“I promised myself, with all of my naive bravado, that I would never make myself vulnerable like he did, that I would never wallow in past regrets or failures.”

Note Andy’s language:  “naive bravado.”  Just those two words show that Andy knows he is young, inexperienced, and making mistakes. Also, the combination of “naive” and “bravado” create an inexperienced/powerful incongruity which might be seen as humorous— Andy is very lightly poking fun at himself.  Andy doesn’t put himself down by saying something like “I was such a jerk.”  Nor does Andy pity himself by saying something like, “Why did I have to be the kid whose dad lost his job?” He simply explains clearly what happened, and acts compassionately towards his own less-than-perfect-but-very-human reaction.

Later, Andy changes his mind and realizes he was wrong without putting himself down:

“I looked at my dad and knew all of those notions about employment, competent hiking or getting the right type of pasta at the grocery store, were false.”

Andy then makes an honest reflection about their imperfections and the importance of family support:

“I looked at my dad and I saw that being a man isn’t about any sort of superficial, external measure. As it was during my childhood misadventures, it’s about us, the imperfect son with the imperfect father, supporting each other up the proverbial mountain.”

Note that Andy doesn’t give himself a label. He simply describes his observations and feelings. He reveals an honest admiration for his father, despite his father’s imperfections.  A college might say Andy shows himself to be a young man who is attentive, appreciative, and discerning. But if Andy were to say this about himself–to label himself in this way–his essay wouldn’t be nearly as effective.

How to Express What You’ve Experienced without Giving Yourself a Label

Try not to give yourself a label in your writing: Try not to say,  “I was happy” (or sad, clever, silly, hardworking, etc.)  Why?  Of course a school wants to know you are hard working.  But anyone can say that.  Instead, say what you perceived through your senses, what you saw, heard, smelled, felt, tasted.

This book can help:  The Emotion Thesaurus.  It lists seventy-five emotions, and describes what people feel and how they act during that emotion.  For example, instead of saying, “I was scared,” it’s stronger to say, “I was licking my lips and gulping down water.”

Can you see the lips and the water glass?  A word picture of the experience is more specific and memorable than naming an emotion or characteristic. Andy wrote some strong, specific word pictures, including  “Precipice Trail” and the need for a water break.  Writing what you have perceived and experienced brings your writing to life. Alive writing stands out from the crowd.

In sum:

1. State clearly what you experienced through your senses.  Don’t label yourself if you can avoid it. Try The Emotion Thesaurus for assistance.

2. Pay close attention to the words you use to describe yourself.

3.  Be kind to yourself when looking at your mistakes, flaws, and growth experiences.

The bottom line is this:  writing about yourself in an appealing way teaches you to be a better person—a person who is admired for his honesty and insight, and who strives to improve.

Great college essays can help you do more than get into your first choice college. They can help you discover your skillful and successful adult qualities, now buried within your high school student self.

[Need more assistance with writing your story or your college application essay? Write We educate and motivate. You create.]

[Photo caption and credit: Andy Duehren poses for a portrait with his father, David, near their home in Massachusetts. Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times]