When applying to college, this character trait may mean more than grades
By Jennifer Winward September 10
As college application season arrives, the biggest struggle for many students is deciding what to write about for their personal essay. Channeling one’s inner self into a package that shines in print is not easy for anyone, but it is particularly challenging for teenagers who have not previously written about themselves in such a vulnerable way.
Students tend to start with obvious — and sometimes trite — topics: successes and failures, times of struggle, or mistakes that produced valuable lessons. However, the best essays are born when students dig deeper and share something that makes them tear up, or causes their eyes to twinkle or their tones to shift.
The only genuine way for students to recognize these personal moments of authenticity is for them to hear it for themselves. They need auditory feedback to recognize a pause, a moment of vulnerability, or a shift in their tone when they talk about the topic that should be the focus of their college essays. The insider secret? They should record themselves speaking about something that they love, that’s disappointing or that gets them fired up about life. They’ll hear it when it happens.
After guiding hundreds of these recorded chats with students over the past 20 years, I have noticed a common theme among those whose college essays brought about the best results in admissions to their top-choice colleges. The students who talk about moments of genuine kindness reveal more authenticity than those who focus on other subjects.
One student who was passionate about science and engineering lit up while talking about volunteering at a local science museum, planning creative projects for kids and narrating the planetarium show.
Another student talked about how his family’s deep concern for and commitment to the well-being of abused and neglected animals helped teach him to be more compassionate toward people.
One compared the experience of caring for her sick mother while going to school to trying to keep a full glass of water from spilling during an obstacle course. It’s impossible, of course. Water spills.
And one who lived in a home that couldn’t always afford to put dinner on the table spent every Sunday at his local church feeding the homeless. He knew how it felt to be hungry.
These students discovered something about themselves when they identified the situations in which they were the most kind. Kindness builds character, and colleges (and employers) care about character. Yes, grades, course rigor and test scores matter. But consider that most student applications will look very similar with just a straight numbers comparison. Kindness allows students to stand out.
A recent report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Making Caring Common, speaks to this. Colleges want students who care. They are drawn to applicants who show concern for others, promote good citizenship and civic engagement and develop personal responsibility. Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, says they “want students who have achieved in and out of the classroom, but [they] are also looking for things harder to quantify, [like] authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good.”
Let’s take a step back for a second and think about why colleges care about students being kind. They care because society cares. Quite simply, we need more kindness in our homes, in our schools and in our communities. The impact of enduring kindness supersedes the name of the school on a college sweatshirt. Being yourself and channeling your inner kindness to build character should be the focus. Getting into your top-choice college should be the bonus of being kind, not the reason to be kind.
So channel your inner kindness. Consider the situations when you’re the kindest, and the people to whom you’re naturally kind. Why would that be? What does it say about you if you feel the most fulfilled when you are being kind to children or to strangers or to your teachers or to horses or to an elderly woman crossing the street? Think about that. It will tell you something about yourself, reveal a brilliant story to share, and give you a reason to be proud of who you are.
That matters for life, not just for college.
Jennifer Winward is an instructor at the University of California at San Diego, an 18-year veteran of high school tutoring, and the founder and lead instructor of Winward Academy. She earned her PhD specializing in adolescent brain development and adolescent learning.
How to Write a Good College Application Essay
An essay should explain why a student wants to attend a particular college and not others.By Janet Morrissey
Here are some tips compiled from experts for writing that all-important application essay, which can often mean the difference between getting accepted — or rejected — by the school of your choice.
The essay is your megaphone — your view of the world and your ambitions. It’s not just a resume or a regurgitation of everything you’ve done. It needs to tell a story with passion, using personal, entertaining anecdotes that showcase your character, your interests, your values, your life experiences, your views of the world, your ambitions and even your sense of humor.
Emphasize volunteer work or other ways you’ve helped people or made your community a better place. It helps if the activity is related to the subject you want to study. For example, Christopher Rim of Command Education Group, which coaches students, remembers that one student who wanted to become a dentist set up a nonprofit and held fund-raisers to distribute toothbrushes, toothpaste and other dental products to homeless shelters. Admissions staff members want to know how your presence will make the college a better place.
Mention internships, summer courses, extracurricular activities or lab work that show steps you’ve taken to learn and understand your field of interest. That will help show you know the field you’ve chosen to study and are passionate about it.
Explain with knowledge and passion why you want to study at this particular college rather than at others. Tell why the school’s size, curriculum, social atmosphere, location, professors or history influenced your choice.
Correct spelling, grammar and punctuation are critical. Use grammar, syntax and writing with a level of sophistication that shows you’re ready for college. Never use text-style abbreviations or rude or profane language.
After the essay is submitted, check your email and voice mail daily to make sure you see and respond promptly to messages from admissions staff members. Many students check only texts and sometimes miss emails asking follow-up questions or requesting an interview.
Hafeez Lakhani of Lakhani Coaching summed up the essay this way: “Every college is like a dinner table. What will make you the most interesting contributor to that dinner table conversation? What will make you help everyone else have a more interesting experience?”
A good essay, rich with anecdotes and personality, will answer those questions and stand out from the pile.
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