Archive for July, 2008


What we mean, what we say, and what people make out of it are three different things.

We are now focused no finding out the truth about ourselves.

The next step will be to decide what we should and what we should not share with admissions officers.

Wording what we have decided to reveal about ourselves comes last.


no comment

A friend ot mine said, “You write in this blog, ok, but your students don’t comment at all. Have they started these dreaming communities yet?”.

Achievement: Is there anything to be proud of?

I guess, yes. It’s something that you have achieved on your own. I don’t mean it should be something to which nobody else contributed. Of course, not. If we examine our achievements, we’ll see that at least some of their aspects have been brought about by other people, even if they served just as inspiration.

It could be something little. The best essays are usually about little accomplishments, because in such cases we tend to dig deeper and examine from a broader perspective, trying to find little gems. If the achievement is big, we rely on its speaking for itself, thus coming up with superficial flat descriptions.

People are not interested so much in WHAT you achieved but in HOW you achieved it. Your way, your struggle should reveal some of your merits.

Thus committment to something small other people find useless (e.g. learning how to juggle with 5 tangerines) might turn out to be the gem because you show you’re brave and confident enough not to care about other people’s opinion as long as you believe in your cause. You’re also patient, etc. Well it’s just another possible scenario.

Achievement: Don’t be proud of being a good student

I have already warned against writing about things which could be found elsewhere in your application. Well, actually, it’s ok to elaborate on some of these, but in your case being a good student is not one of these, I guess. If you come from a family which values education and does its best to provide you with educational opportunities, you have not gone through hell to become a good student. It would be a shame if you did not get good marks, so what’s so special about your academic accomplishment?

Of course, valuing education does not necessarily mean you have developed the best philosophy of education, but we cannot tell admissions officers that our parents are not interested in whether we learn or not but rather in whether we get excellent marks or not, can we?

Of course access to educational opportunities is not the same as educational quality, but we cannot tell admissions officers that teachers at prestigious selective high schools are ignorant and negligent, can we?

Even if it is true that your parents and teachers are not educationally enlightened, you cannot brag about being an excellent student because you were not born and raised in a ghetto / mistreated minority, and, you haven’t actually made the most of your blessings. How many books have you read this year? Well, just forget about being a good student, OK?

Achievement: reread the Holy Scriptures

Before you start writing essays about achievement, reread this text.

step back from yourself

When you write a personal essay, step back and read it through the eyes of a stranger. What would you infer about the portrayed person? Do you like him? Would you like him to be your classmate or friend at college?

Parents as role models. What do people expect from personal essays?

I hope you have 7 min. fun with my beloved George Carlin (R.I.P.) It is useful and relevant.

I have just read Janeta’s essay on influence. You probably remember her speech about her parents, who taught her how to read, write and do sums, took her to piano lessons, helped her with schoolwork, introduced her to family traditions, treated her while she was will and took her on trips. Well, I would not object by saying “Isn’t that what most normal parents would do? What makes your case special?” because we are humans, and we share most aspects of our experience, and there’s nothing wrong of growing up in similar ways. The point is not to present the audience with a unique stunning experience that will speak for itself; the point is to present readers with your personal interpretation and meaning. It’s not the experience that matters but what you make out of it. The point is to be introspective, conscious of your life and self. What Janeta inferred from her experience ran along the lines of “It made me better prepared for school.” What I, as a reader, infer is, “She acquired some academic skills earlier than many other kids because her parents started her academic education earlier.” Does this say anything about her personality? No. Then it’s useless because as far as academic potential and performance are concerned, there’s a lot of material in the school transcript, test scores, teacher recommendations, lists of achievements. All these will show admissions officers that Janeta is a brilliant student, but they will not reveal anything about her personality. And aren’t essays meant to reveal personality? Well, it’s true that she mentioned that her parents brought her up to be “a good and ethical person”. First, I cannot easily trust that because it does not show me how they did it, and second, I cannot see any proof that she is such a person. Nobody trusts declarations. Everybody wants proof. Proof is found in experience, so … tell stories, and don’t forget that telling a story is not so much about telling; it’s more about showing. You have read fiction and biographies, haven’t you?

The other problem with her essay is that all the time I perceived Janeta as a blank page on which her parents wrote, a lump of clay which they moulded. So shall we infer that Janeta has never had any will of her own, that she has never been pro-active? Are passivity and obedience what colleges are looking for? Well, if they imagined you as a tabula rasa, on which professors would write, yes, but is that really the way they imagine students? If they need a number of blank pages on which to print, would they require personal essays in the first place? If producing batches of identical experts were their goal, then personality would only get in the way as it might pose some threat by resistance. Well, we all know that colleges are not looking for intellectually gifted blank pages.

Choosing to write about your parents as influence / role models is tricky. Some colleges even ask you not to write about family members. If you choose to write about parents, you will have to make extra efforts to come up with a decent personal essay. As personal essays are meant to reveal your personality, they are supposed to show your own choices, your own will to pursue them. What Janeta presented us with is the choices her parents made, the obedient acceptance of their will (“I started taking piano lessons when I was five years old because they took me there.”) Well, it’s normal for parents to make many decisions for their young children, but these decisions mostly reveal their values and standards, not their children’s, and we are not trying to send our role models to college, are we? So, let’s try to promote ourselves.

I don’t mean to say it’s impossible to write a decent essay about parents, but we should be careful about the emphasis. We should choose experiences which demonstrate our choice and will: it should be we who choose (not always consciously, of course) whom to admire for what, and it should be we who choose to emulate him in one way or another. From colleges’ perspective, it’s like getting to know a person by the people he chooses to hang out with. Well, if it’s your parents, you can’t choose them, but you can choose whether to be similar or different or nothing of the kind.

Who is a good candidate for your mentor or hero? Well, nobody is better than anybody else. What matters is how you portray him – whether you focus on relevant features and experiences and if you succeed in showing them related to yourself. And there should not be just declarations like “My grandfather was a reliable and knowledgeable person, and I wanted to be like him.” You should paint pictures showng events and scenarios, in which he stood out as such a person. You should be an eye-witness ot at least you should have heard of them, and you should have been impressed, fascinated, etc. You should show your thoughts and feelings, leading to a conscious or unconscious decision to emulate the person in some way. You should show that you picked out some experiences or responses to experiences under this influence.

You should be specific and show, paint – I cannot emphasize that enough. A solid part of your essay should be some kind of narrative. That’s what makes it interesting. Do you like reading declarations like “I am smart and studious, helpful and considerate.”? It’s boring, isn’t it? Tell stories – that’s what everybody craves for. When you write your essay, read it. Does it kill you with boredom? Well, would you like to kill admission officers too?