We’re thrilled to feature another post by our in-house writing expert, Greta Myers. Prior to joining the Admitster team, she taught AP English at a college preparatory academy in Seattle, where she also served as Head of the English Department. As a teacher of high-school seniors, she walked her students through writing their college application essays every year, and has seen students who show depth of character through their essays, as well as read essays that fall short. Read her timely advice on how to best communicate caring and commitment in your college essay!
A year ago, one of my AP Literature students said something to me that I’ll never forget. When I asked my class why students are tempted to cheat, this young woman responded: “Colleges only care about grades. They don’t pay attention to how we get them.” Her words haunted me. What if she was right? What if, amidst all the grade-grubbing and test-taking, colleges had ceased to care about students’ integrity and character? Well, according to a recent report, entitled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions“, released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Making Caring Common project, my student was wrong – what a relief!
College admissions committees are increasingly looking for students who demonstrate that they care deeply about something, while standardized test scores and GPAs are decreasing in importance. These higher learning institutions have come to realize that students who are self-motivated and demonstrate strong character are often more successful than students who are simply jumping because Harvard says “jump.” For students and parents, this is good news. That is, these shifting priorities from admissions panels give students permission to prioritize activities they love and – dare I say it? – spend fewer hours studying for the SAT. It also reminds all of us that integrity is not something to be thrown to the wayside in the pursuit of the Ivies. Rather, it is the cornerstone of a productive life, and can also help to boost college applications.
So, how exactly does this manifest itself in a personal statement? After reading hundreds upon hundreds of essays, both as a teacher and an expert at Admitster, I can tell you that the students who demonstrate “caring” in their writing are easy to spot. What’s more, those are the essays that are remembered. Here are some tips to consider in your own personal statement brainstorming – and life planning.
DO: Show The Before And After
In order to show that you care about something, readers need evidence that the “something” has played a transformative role in your life. Ergo, we need to see a transformation. Begin your essay describing who you were before this person, place, or thing entered your life. Be honest about your weaknesses and initial failures; not only will that establish your credibility, but it will also make us cheer for you later when you need to describe your strengths without sounding arrogant.
One of my favorite essays came from a student who candidly described how, in his pursuit of popularity, he’d let his grades fall apart during his sophomore and junior years. Seeing a shockingly low GPA mid-junior year stunned him into action. He drastically shifted his priorities to focus more attention on school and, for inspiration, even started reading books about successful people. When I worked with him during his senior year, he was one of my most motivated students. This was because he had learned to pursue knowledge for its own sake, and not only to earn a high grade.
Another memorable essay came from a girl whose father had decimated her self-esteem after years of verbal abuse. The changing moment for her was receiving a kind and encouraging text from a friend in a moment when she really needed it. She made a point to start spreading similar encouragement, leaving post-its for her friends in their lockers, thanking her teachers, and writing notes to her basketball teammates. She grew in her own confidence and earned positions of leadership. Reading about this student’s journey made her transformation convincing and her kindness vivid. Both students allowed obstacles to ultimately strengthen them by choosing to care. This was highlighted through seeing the full arc of where they began, as compared to where they ended.
DO: Provide Evidence
Students who are pretending to care about something often only have hyperbole to lean on: “It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.” To a reader who doesn’t know you, these are wasted words. Why should they believe your statements if there’s no evidence to back them up? Students who actually care about something usually have proof to demonstrate their passion.
As an example, one young man started tutoring fellow students out of a grudging obligation to fulfill a service requirement (there’s the “before”); however, he fell in love with teaching and continued tutoring long after his obligation had ended. He went on to develop a tutoring curriculum that was adapted by other teachers and learning professionals. Another example comes from a student who wrote about feeling inspired from seeing street art in Iceland. She then went on to describe her own efforts to create “livable art” by building a small tea-house in her backyard, complete with French doors, bookshelves, and a sitting area. Both students supplied concrete facts showing they cared enough to apply effort to their passion. It’s no surprise that colleges are seeking these kinds of young people. Someone with passion, follow-through, and a strong work ethic makes a great college student, not to mention a successful adult.
DO NOT: Get Saccharine Or Pitiful
I’ve read more essays than I care to admit wherein the student describes a child in a developing country with a beautiful smile and shining eyes; the essay writers often identify this child as displaying “pure joy.” This would be a beautiful image if we could count on it being true, but often what the author displays through overly-flowery writing is naiveté. Readers ask, “What is the definition of joy here? How do we know this child was expressing more than just childish delight? Does the student know anything about this child beyond the fact that he has a beautiful smile?” Real caring usually doesn’t lead to a primrose path of happily-ever-after, as most people discover challenges and flaws when they make an effort to truly invest somewhere. Therefore, sugary descriptions should be avoided as they ultimately undermine credibility. Similarly, if you want to write about something sad or difficult, don’t try to elicit pity from your reader with woe-is-me statements. Instead, stick with facts.
One memorable essay came from a student who traveled to Guatemala on a service trip and became horribly ill. She described her “sick room” – the mosquitoes, the heat, her fellow invalids, the kind teacher who cared for them – all facts. Later, she described her resolution to do something to care for her teacher, since she hadn’t been able to carry out her original goal to help the Guatemalan people. I still remember this student’s description of collecting money from all the sick students, then weakly waddling to a nearby art studio to purchase a painting that their teacher loved, but wasn’t able to afford. The story showed the student’s positive attitude, sense of humor, initiative, heart for others, and that she cared – and without dipping into syrupy sweet prose or a resentful tone. How? She described the facts of what had happened.
DO NOT: Fake It
Many college essay writers try to fake caring. They start by describing an important moment, but typically have little to share about how they subsequently changed. The result is unimpressive. In contrast, students who project genuine caring often admit their passion started off as a guilty pleasure – the moments spent in the basement working on an art project when Civics homework was waiting, or stopping to play basketball with a downtrodden neighborhood kid instead of rushing to work. One of my busiest former students wrote her personal statement about the inspiration she encountered when playing with an old film camera in an abandoned lot when it happened to be bathed in sunlight. There were a million other things this student could have spent her time doing, but instead she let passion grow. She explored, she experimented, she fed her creativity. Later, she found herself doing the same sort of exploration when studying the human brain, and wrote about how her experimentation with a camera had ultimately lead to her desire to study neurology. She took her eyes away from the grindstone long enough to discover what she actually loved, and is now on her way to becoming someone who will tangibly care for others as a career. Other times, students stumble into caring by taking action first. I can think of several students who participated in community service activities as a school requirement, but were then transformed in spite of their initial reluctance. When a genuine transformation occurs, there’s usually a profound story to tell.
If you’re not sure how to begin seeking out something to care about, take a lesson from these students. Put down the phone, step away from the screen, and seek out a service opportunity that intrigues you, or give yourself permission to indulge a passion. Moments of whole-hearted investment ultimately shape students into the motivated, compassionate, proactive individuals that colleges are looking for. The Turning The Tide report is great news for high-schoolers. No longer do students need to focus on what they’re supposed to do or who they’re supposed to be; instead, students are encouraged be who they actually are.
For more information on writing your personal statement, or to ask Greta a question, send her an e-mail at email@example.com