You are not your college admission essay

By Sandra A. Miller

I am sitting with my 17-year-old daughter, huddled over our laptops, reviewing a draft of her college admission essay. We have gobbled up bowls of ice cream, but there isn’t enough mint chocolate chip in the world for this task.

I’ve heard the college essay billed as the most important 650 words a student will ever write. One article advised, “Your goal is to write an essay that makes someone fall in love with you.” When I read that I didn’t know whether to laugh or throw up. These are novice writers, teenagers who tend to share themselves visually via Instagram, and they’re supposed to successfully brand themselves in this one written piece? No wonder this essay creates a minefield of emotions, including self-doubt and anxiety.

My daughter, who is in the first term of her senior year of high school, has begun the sprint of the college application process—a far heavier pressure than the sweaty hand of this early autumn heat wave. And my girl is trapped inside, trying to make admissions counselors she doesn’t know fall in love with her.

I am a professional writer who has published hundreds of essays. I have taught essay writing for over a decade, but I can’t ever remember feeling this confounded by two double-spaced pages. When I look over, I see the tightness in my daughter’s face as she types. She looks fragile and close to tears. I can practically read the thought bubble above her head: Is this what colleges want to hear?

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to say,” my girl moans as she reads through the draft she’s been tweaking for an hour. I look on her Google document and skim her work: an essay that explains why she walks out of movies if there’s an embarrassing scene, and how she has transformed her “hyper-sensitivity” into art.

I won’t help with the writing—not my job—but I’m an expert with feedback and redirection. I know when an essay has wandered off course. I know when it’s boring, or the writer is emotionally detached from the material. Although I have helped dozens of students with their college essays, I can’t help my daughter because this time I see the bigger story with almost startling clarity.

My daughter who plays soccer, lacrosse, and sews three-quarter zip fleece pullovers for anybody who wants one is not this essay. My girl who, yes, walks out of embarrassing films but will sit for hours with a friend in need because she can’t bear to see someone suffer is also not this essay. She is a brownie baker, a candle maker, and a mediocre singer who loves to belt out show tunes in her off-key vibrato. She braids my hair, mends her brother’s clothes when he begs, cheers for the underdog, and is so much more engaged with the world than these 650 words could ever convey.

But isn’t that true of all of our children? We see the breadth and beauty of their short lives, and know the best writers among them will never be able to capture that complexity. No child, no matter what her life experiences, can tidily sum herself up in a Common Application essay.

But that’s precisely the pressure my daughter feels. The advice is to “be yourself on paper” and write the story no one else can tell. To write something “unforgettable” and “perfect” that will win you the prize of acceptance to your top choice colleges.

Had I ever put that pressure on myself as a writer, I would have quit long ago.

“Tell me what to do!” she wails, hurling herself across the sofa.

I draw a breath and read her work again. I see a structural problem, as well as too much telling and not enough showing. And I see a bigger problem, too. She is trying to follow all of the advice out there. She is trying to make this one short essay everything.

The word “essay” comes from the French word “essai,” meaning try or attempt. The 16th century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay, described it as a series of attempts. In his collections he often merged personal self-examination with psychology. He reflected on his own small experiences, but set them in a larger context.

“An essay,” I tell her, “should be an attempt to grapple with something specific, not you making sense of your whole life and why you are the way you are.” I suggest that she give it another try. “Find one experience that meant something to you and write it for yourself.”

She looks at me skeptically, and maybe a little relieved. Then she sits up, opens a new document, and starts typing.

I hope this one is what she wants to say, not what she thinks colleges want to hear.

Sandra A. Miller’s essays and articles have appeared in over one hundred publications. She teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

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