You Don't Know What "Prepared" Really Means
Beware this error if…
You'd be amazed at how many stories I've heard like the following one.
Bob's mother called me the day after early applications were due. "He doesn't want to show me his personal essay," she said. "He says he didn't even start writing it until the night before the deadline and then he got sick of everything he had to say. So he just sent in whatever he had! He doesn't even remember if he ran spell-check. Are we in trouble?"
Yes, Bob's application was in trouble indeed. If the application season is a race, then Bob had collapsed on the ground with the finish line in sight. When I hear a story like this one, what I hear is not laziness. It's not exhaustion or an "understandable" feeling of being overwhelmed. What I hear is a lack of preparation.
Not that I blame anyone who runs out of time or patience for a college application. The fact is, no one is naturally prepared for this process, which asks you, as a high school student, to do things you would normally never choose for yourself.
These strange rituals of college application don't come naturally to anyone. You need to prepare, but that's not news. What you haven't heard, I'll bet, is what prepared really means. Most of all, being prepared means pacing yourself, making smart decisions about when and how you will work on your application before you ever sit down to write an essay, or fill in a short-answer question, or meet with an interviewer.
There are two aspects to keep in mind when pacing yourself, and they may sound contradictory.
How can this be? It may sound impossible that your application is both of these things at once, so let me explain what I mean.
Pace Yourself (Part One): Your Application is a Marathon
Half of mastering the college application process is recognizing just how long and challenging it will be. The first of several standardized tests may begin sophomore year with the PSATs. But from the point of view of your transcript, the process starts even earlier, as early as the end of eighth grade, when you pick your ninth-grade courses. After adding up the time spent on tests, meetings, essay drafts, campus visits, and just plain waiting, most seniors would agree that the application process lasts, on average…nine thousand years.
No wonder Bob felt sick of it by the end.
The trick to pacing, whether you're a marathon runner or a college applicant, is not to push yourself too hard. You could probably walk for hours, all day if you had to, but you can only sprint for minutes. Why? Because when you walk you naturally find a sustainable pace, one that doesn't leave you out of breath or build up lactic acid in your muscles. In the same way, I suggest you work on college applications at a walking pace, a comfortable pace. Of course, if you're going to do that, you need to plan out your time.
Get started early. Send for applications during spring of your junior year. (For quicker results, download applications from the colleges' Web sites.) These are usually ready by mid-July. In the meantime, even before then, you can at least download the Common Application.
Once the school year ends, it's time to begin filling them out. Will you feel like it? Probably not. You may feel as if you'd rather have cavities filled. So make it easy on yourself. Commit to one hour each weekend. Just one hour.
That first day, just fill in all the nitty-gritty, obvious stuff. Put in your name, address, phone numbers. Get all of that factual information entered. I don't care if you're watching television while you do it. Just do it—easiest parts first.
Start making a list of activities for your "brag sheet." This is the list of all your extracurricular activities. You may find you don't remember everything at first. Put down all you can think of, then add to it as more comes back to you. For now, put down everything you've done. You can always cut the list down later.
Of course, most applicants don't work this way. Many rely on a dangerous motivational technique. They wait until their backs are up against a deadline, and then they use fear to push themselves through the unpleasant work. You might say that this crisis approach has three parts:
Sound familiar? It's a popular approach. But why? First of all, it gives you something to do with your anxiety. If you deny how new and nerve-wracking this experience can be, then you channel all that anxious energy into racing for the deadline. Second, it makes a long, slow, and sometimes (let's face it) boring process into something rushed and exciting.
The trouble with procrastination as an approach is that rushing leads to sloppy, incomplete work. No one can maintain a sprint all the way through a college application, and when you rush, you tend to make careless mistakes, like leaving out part of the application, repeating yourself in different essays, or missing deadlines. Your thinking, too, becomes messy and immature. You think much better, more clearly, when you give yourself time to think.
"So all right," you may be thinking. "I get it. The challenge of the application process is that it's very long, like a marathon, so I need to learn some techniques to pace myself. This way I'll have something left over at the end, when it counts most, and I can finish strong."
Your Best Self in the Essay
For essays, showing your best self starts the same way as for interviews: you need to interest both yourself and your reader. But when you're writing, you don't have the reader sitting across from you, showing with his or her reactions whether you're getting through. For this reason, it's a good idea to make sure that the subject you're writing about is not just personal, but universal. Universal doesn't mean "very very big" and "important," it means that anyone—anyone in the universe, I suppose—can connect with it. It's universal the way type O blood is the "universal donor": Anyone can receive it.
How do you know if you have a universal topic? Here's an example of an essay about an autobiographical writing class, by a senior named Heather. Does it seem to you to get beyond the writer's personal story?
Throughout the term, and especially at the beginning, I spent a lot of time reviewing my term papers with Mr. Stash. My first paper focused on my earlier childhood, when my family moved from southern California to Philadelphia. In this paper I got to see the major aspects of my life when I came to the East Coast. While writing it I remembered with some nostalgia my memories from middle school. My next written assignment for him was about the camp I had been going to every summer for all of my life; in many ways it felt like my real home because my family has moved so often. The first draft was slightly confused, because I had so many fond memories I wanted to include, but Mr. Stash helped me to extensively edit the essay, and sift out the most important aspects of that camp experience. From his suggestions I was able to write a paper that showed me why I really loved the place. Once again, writing the paper brought back a rush of memories and as Mr. Stash helped me to give these memories more meaning I learned a great deal about myself.
So far, I was bored to death, and I hadn't learned much about Heather I could relate to. She reviews some memories of childhood, and the teacher who helped her "learn about herself." The essay might work as an English paper in a personal writing class, because it does have a thesis, a main point: Writing with Mr. Stash taught me about myself. But if you're not the writer or the teacher who assigned it, who cares? The essay was only about her own vague sentimental feelings.
I told Heather I found it hard to relate to her story, and suggested that in order to move from the personal to the universal, she could try making a list of the universal topics or subjects she had mentioned in her draft, aside from her personal experience. She came up with these:
These are topics that might interest anyone—we've all had homes, memories, teachers, and classes. Anyone might be interested to learn something about them, since anyone can relate. I asked her, "What do you think your essay says about any one of these universal topics?"
"I'm not sure what you mean," she said.
"Take memories," I told her. "The personal story is that Mr. Stash helped you bring up memories, and you discovered something in them. And it could happen to anyone, so that's a universal topic: Mr. Stash helped me discover how memories reveal their meaning when you write about them. Is that what interested you about this experience?"
"Not really," she said.
"Okay," I said.
After a pause, she said, "I guess the thing is that my family moved so often, and I felt like a didn't really have a home. But I had camp. I didn't realize it for a while, because I didn't live there, but when I wrote about it, that was what felt like home. That was my home. A home doesn't have to be the place you wake up every day. I think that's what I really want to say: that I learned something I didn't know before, about what makes a home a home."
With that, Heather moved from a purely personal story—"I learned about myself"—to a universal one: "let me tell you what for me makes a home a home."
Now consider a different essay, with a different kind of challenge. George, who had never gotten very excited about history or social studies, came alive in those classes when he became fascinated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His teacher, without consulting George's guidance counselor, was thrilled with George's newfound enthusiasm, and encouraged him to write his personal statement about these tyrants and the ingenious ways they controlled their people.
George wrote an essay with a good universal point: "I am impressed by these great leaders' achievements, militarily, economically, and especially in terms of their sheer power over their people." In his essay, his enthusiasm and fascination came through, but the trouble was that he seemed too emotionally involved with the regime and its dictatorial ways, which in some aspects anticipated Hitler. Reading his draft, I half expected him to shave his head and join the Neo-Nazi Party. While Heather's initial essay had seemed selfish because it had no universal idea to interest a reader, George's essay had a universal idea, but a scary one. It seemed to show off a side of him that was aggressive and controlling, maybe even threatening.
At our next meeting, I asked about his feelings about democracy and tyranny. I encouraged him to explain both in the essay. He added to the essay and showed the revision to his young history teacher, who objected to the change. He thought his student was not being true to what had motivated his newfound success in social studies: his enthusiasm for the tyrannical regime. This inexperienced teacher also worried that George's enthusiasm would cool if he didn't stay focused on his favorite tyrants. According to this teacher's reasoning, being true to his "authentic energy" was the most important issue, and since George had mentioned in his application that he was Jewish, "he wasn't really going to offend anyone." The teacher felt that George should go back to his first version.
I disagreed. The enthusiasm in his first essay could easily have sounded like approval, and if this essay was someone's brief chance to get to know him, he could seem like a scary kid to have on campus. Of course, I couldn't rewrite the essay for him. So instead, I described for him the impression that his first version gave me. I explained how it made him sound selfish, because he only seemed to care about what was exciting to him and not whether the ideas could be offensive or even harmful to his reader. Was that the sort of impression he wanted to convey?
He said, "No! This stuff is all really interesting, but that doesn't mean I think it's right." In his history paper and early drafts of his essay, George had talked only about his fascination, but not about his own values. In his revised essay he included his appreciation for democracy and egalitarianism in the United States, while discussing how he was fascinated by what happens when too much power is concentrated in the hands of too few—and how dangerous it is to give absolute power to any one person. For me, working with George was a lesson about how easy it is to forget the sensibilities of your readers, and on top of that, your own highest ideals. In the end, his essay made clear his appreciation for democracy and egalitarianism.
Watching the development of George's essay through a few drafts taught me a lot about the slow process of discovering your "best self" in an essay. Your readers need to learn not just about your topic but about your overall attitudes and ideals. This is why I encourage you to alternate between focusing on what interests you and considering your audience as you write your essay. Often, you will come to something even more true to yourself than you would get by just writing your private thoughts. And when your best self emerges, you and your reader can recognize it.