It was great to see a story about the college essay on the front page of the New York Times last week. Yet even the Times missed the point.
The story feeds into people’s anxiety over college admissions and wrongly suggests that specialized, exotic and often costly activities will help you stand out in a crowded field of straight-A students with strong test scores, community service hours and plenty of extracurricular activities.
We go to countless presentations by college admissions officers. None has ever said anything close to the line the Times writer penned: “Suddenly, the idea of working as a waitress or a lifeguard seems like a quaint relic of an idyllic, pre-Tiger Mom past.” The fact is that most universities are not looking for students who have gone to China.
We work with college-bound students; most are regular kids who do normal things. Many of them lifeguard, babysit and work as camp counselors. Others sing, play tennis or do theater. Some have climbed mountains. Some have traveled the world or worked in science labs at top-notch universities. The essays that stand out are the ones that are genuine and show who they are.
The essay is not about the job, the vacation or the adventure. It is about what you learned from the experience and why that makes you a good college candidate. It is a story about you.
Don’t make plans for the sake of a strong personal statement. You might be disappointed. Do what you love. Be a regular kid. Lifeguard, waitress, join a youth group, save money, teach someone to swim. You don’t need to save a life to get a good story. Be the best babysitter you can be. Get good grades. Study hard. And when you are ready to write that essay, we’ll be glad to show you how to do it yourself.