In Zimbabwe the jacarandas are blooming, better known as “exam trees,” marking the start of O, AS and A level exam season by blanketing the streets with their purple blossoms. And so it’s also the advent of application season, with students agonizing over every word of their college applications, trying to find a magical formula for “getting in.”
My inboxes are quickly drowning with student messages – questions about which activities to include on a Common App, about whether or not to let the admissions officer know they were sick before national exams or if their L6 best science student award is significant enough to write as an honor. And then there are the essays. My inbox droops under the weight of drafts and drafts of essays, just waiting for the Mai Mano stamp of approval before they are uploaded and submitted – Is my topic ok? Do you learn enough about me here? What do you think they will think of me if they read this? You told me to put my soul on paper, but I don’t know what my soul says. I’m just a normal teenager; I don’t have anything special to write about. What do I do? The questions are endless.
I’ve come to believe and to tell my students that applications are just like life. No need to stress – life is going to go on with or without you, and worrying doesn’t change its outcome, so best to take a Zen attitude. “Ah, no, Mai Mano, don’t go all philosophical on us” they say with their eyes…. “Here she goes again…” But really — you don’t have to make your application process more complicated than it is.
As you work on your applications and essays, remember one simple truism: Focus on that which matters. Just as with life, there is no need to clutter your application with trivialities or to include superficial incidents nor to tell it all. There is no need to try to second guess what the admissions officer wants to hear. You don’t need to create an erudite voice for yourself with big SAT vocab words or a dramatic tale of tragedy or great accomplishment to be the centerpiece of your personal essay. Simply show your life story as it is, and focus on that which matters.
All well and good, Mai Mano, you say, but how does that translate to my application exactly? Well, let’s try out my assertion:
Which activities should I include? Those which really matter to you, those for which you have passion, those to which you have dedicated a lot of time and energy. Can you not imagine life without music? Include it, and show us how it feels to be part of perfect harmony in a combined school choir of 400 voices. Would you dread lessons if you couldn’t think about running on a track or up and down a basketball court after hours behind a desk? Write about the thrill of making a goal after a well-orchestrated play. Did you simply attend the business club because it was the only one on Tuesdays that fit your schedule? Maybe you can leave it out.
Which awards or leadership positions to include? Those which you feel you really earned, those which really made you proud, which taught you something about yourself and about working with others. Those which matter.
What about those funky short answer supplement questions? Start once again by thinking about what is important to you. Make a list. Can you use the short answer questions to show different sides of yourself, your values, the important influences on your life, your environment, your dreams? Can your answers show how you take advantage of the opportunities which life brings and expand on the talents which you have. There are no right answers, except those which are right for you, that show us what you value and want to carry to college with you – just don’t write something creative for the sake of being creative.
And the big question – what do I write my essay about? By now you know the answer to this question already – write about that which matters to you. Be it family, culture, your passions or your thoughts, you don’t need to tell anyone’s story but your own. Perhaps the best essay advice I’ve seen came from a tweet from Dickinson College Admissions that said “Your essay should focus on a blade of grass, not on the whole lawn.” What a relief – no need to tell your life story, but just focus on one day, one incident, one story that shows us what truly matters to you.
Overall, your application tells a story, your own story. Creating a strong college application is an art, not a science. And the art of your application is not only to tell your unique story, but to show it in an intriguing and engaging way and in your own voice. So relax, make yourself a cup of tea, gaze out a window at the blanket of purple jacaranda exam tree blossoms, and open that application once again. And this time, simply focus on that which really matters.
Author Rebecca Zeigler Mano is the Director of Education Matters. This blog was first posted in 2015 when she was then working for EducationUSA.