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The Anxiety of the Takeaway

How do you spend your time? Why do you spend it that way? These are simple questions, but the answers can be revealing.

One of my students volunteered hundreds of hours knocking on doors for a presidential candidate. Another habitually took on baking projects with steps that spanned days. Another volunteered weekly at a hospital, delivering supplies to every department.

As part of Hillside’s process, I ask a lot of questions about these experiences, and that leads to discovery of details and stories. The pleasure students take in sharing their experiences and realizing how much they have to say is obvious. But it’s not unusual — even in the midst of a dynamic conversation — for a student to stop abruptly and ask, “But what will this essay say about me?” In other words, what’s the takeaway?

As we come face-to-face with the anxiety of where in the world this essay is going, I’m reminded of myself, trying to walk my son to school on time. We live just blocks away, and we’re always running late. Once we hit the street, he’s fascinated by everything he sees. Normally I would find this charming, but in those moments, all I want is for us to get to school on time so he can walk in from the playground with his classmates.

I encourage you to stray from the path, to examine what appears to be a piece of garbage but might be a treasure, to pause to appreciate a butterfly. Most of all, I want you to throw away the idea that there is only one acceptable destination.

I don’t want to have to hustle around to the front door and stop at the office for a late pass, and I don’t want him to miss his morning meeting. When I’m on these goal-oriented walks, I don’t care about the butterfly on the flower or the piece of shiny garbage my son thinks might be a treasure, or the hole in the ground he’s peering into (“It’s an interesting hole, Mom!”). I’m single-minded about reaching our destination.

For the college-essay writer, destination has to do with the question of what the reader will learn about them. It is, of course, tempting to skip the acts of discovery and to begin instead with the desired takeaway, working backwards. I’ve coached students who have been advised to begin the writing process by making a list of things they want the admissions committee to learn about them from the essay.

This is not the approach we use at Hillside, but imagine:

  • I have grit
  • I’m kind
  • I’m curious
  • I have emotional intelligence
  • I’m hardworking
  • I care deeply about justice

Then, the search is on for a story that matches the desired takeaway and for details to make the match credible. When I read an essay that originated with this advice, I might find specifics within it that compel my interest, but that engagement is quickly pushed aside by the palpable anxiety of the writer, who is desperate to arrive at the foregone conclusion, seeking the straightest route there. This kind of process leaves no room for asking questions along the way, or for doubt, or for noticing unexpected details. The goal is for the writer to emerge as the hero of the story, and when that’s the case, the opportunity for self-exploration, for reflection, is lost.

The likelihood of prompting an eye roll from an admissions reader is also high.

Don’t tell my son, or I will despair of ever getting him to school on time, but college essay writers should be like him!

I encourage you to stray from the path, to examine what appears to be a piece of garbage but might be a treasure, to pause to appreciate a butterfly, and to get down on your hands and knees to peer into an interesting hole. Most of all, I want you to throw away the idea that there is only one acceptable destination.

I asked the canvasser: How do you feel after you knock on a door and are waiting for it to open? Nervous? Confident? And when it opens, then what? 

I asked the baker: How does the dough feel against your fingertips? How do you know if it has risen enough? 

I said to the hospital worker: You go to the warehouse, check your list, and begin pulling supplies from the shelves. What’s the first thing you grab? Where are you taking it? What does it make you wonder about? 

I ask you to dwell in your questions, so you can really see what’s inside of your experiences — the ones you’ve gravitated to, which likely hold revealing information about why you spend your time as you do, why these experiences matter to you.

You’re embarking on something now, and you’re not quite sure what it will say about you. That’s scary, but it’s inviting to a reader — your curiosity, your willingness to poke around and see what you can learn, your wondering.

Kate is Director of Communications and a Hillside coach.

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