I tend to ask a lot of questions. That’s especially true when I’m working with college-application writers. If you’re talking about preparing for a robotics competition, then I want to know where your team gathered, what songs you jammed to while you drew the designs, and the fact that you nicknamed the robot “Sparky.” If you’re talking about staging an off-off-off-Broadway production of The Nutcracker in your family’s basement, I want to know which sibling tried to bribe the casting director, what household items you used for props — and you have to tell me about how a YouTube ad interrupted the music during your first show.
Students often react with surprise when I ask for these kinds of specifics — and they’re even more skeptical when I suggest that some of these details belong in their personal essays. Do admissions officers really want to know that? Isn’t that too much information? But these specifics — the particulars that make a story textured and real — are how we get to know someone. And that’s precisely what admissions officers are trying to do: get to know you.
In my experience working with writers, one of the biggest misconceptions is that these kinds of fun, quirky, personal details are somehow not welcome or appropriate, that specifics should be included only if they display “virtues” relevant to college admissions. The robotics competition serves only to exemplify “dedication and enthusiasm for engineering”; the Nutcracker anecdote highlights “a passion for organizing events.” Any particulars that don’t serve this function, the thinking goes, are superfluous and a waste of readers’ time. But the point of the college essay is not merely to present illustrations of your college-worthy qualities; the greater goal is to make admissions officers feel that they have met a real person. And that real, knowable, flesh-and-blood person lives in the particulars.
Students often react with surprise when I ask for these kinds of details. But these specifics are how we get to know someone. And that’s precisely what admissions officers are trying to do: get to know you.
When we’re socializing with our friends, we include these details naturally. If you’re chatting casually about a new taco place you found, you’re not going to say “it was a rewarding experience”; you’re going describe the pillowy soft tortillas, how you want more barbacoa in your life, and how you feel about the one weird ingredient in the nachos (broccoli??). When we talk to each other in real life, we rarely confine ourselves to broad generalities. We know instinctively that the point is not to convey mere information — it’s to engage your listener, to be yourself, to laugh and enjoy a rapport.
And when you think about it, isn’t that the reason we feel we know our friends so well — why they’re such unmistakably distinct and authentic people to us? In real life, the intimacy we feel with our close friends and family doesn’t, in most cases, come from knowing their biggest secrets; it comes from knowing a lot of little things. It’s true, too, on the page, where the very human details that we use to build bonds with each other every day can create those same connections with our readers.
The truth is, your essay gets most interesting — and memorable — when you let readers in on that realness, that honesty. That’s why I ask so many questions: so that, in talking together, we discover the little things that make you … you. The turning point in the conversation often happens when a student realizes that our frequently hilarious, indelibly personal, “off the record” riffing is entirely available to be on the record. And that the sense of fun, exploration, and engaging candor that defines our conversation about the college essay is, in fact, not meaningfully different from the sense of fun, candor, and personal exploration that readers want to feel when they read the essay itself.
Lech is a Hillside coach.