This is a real question a real student asked me this week while we were brainstorming an essay topic. I could probably write an entire book on why this question makes me feel sad, but for today I will offer a quick, practical reframing.
So, what is wrong with this question?
- I am amazed that a 17-year-old who has never attended college and never spoken to anyone who works in admissions for more than 30 seconds is so sure he knows “what they want to hear.” How does he know, and how does he know he is right? (Hint: He doesn’t.) And by the way, most grownup parents of 17-year-olds also don’t know!
- Most first drafts of college essays I read are, well, ok…boring. There, I said it! That is because writing “what they want to hear” makes the essay generic and lifeless, and without personality, specifically, without the student’s personality. Colleges get thousands of essays like this, and they all just blend into a dull blur. (Imagine the poor admissions person having to read these hour after hour, day after day. It’s cruel!)
- It’s bad enough that choosing your activities and writing your essays with a focus on “what they want” will make you disappear into the pile of applicants. What is much worse is that you will miss a million opportunities to explore and discover what truly interests you and what is special and important about you and to you. Embracing such opportunities will not only result in a more compelling college application but, more importantly, send you down the path of discovering who you are and what you “plan to do with your one wild and precious life” (Oliver, Mary. The Summer Day. 1992.). Now, doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun?
Start to focus on yourself, rather than on “them”.
- Academics: Begin to pay attention to what is actually interesting to you and what isn’t. Often when I ask students if they have a favorite subject, they say something like, “Math. I am really good at math.” But when I ask them whether or not they LIKE math, sometimes they aren’t sure. They have been so focused on getting good grades that they never stopped to consider whether they enjoy thinking about mathematical ideas more than, say, more literary ideas. Yes, getting good grades is important, but you can do both: do well, but also pay attention to the kinds of ideas and ways of thinking that are most fun and interesting to you, that seem to fit best with your brain.
- Activities: Choose your extracurricular and outside activities based on what interests you. Of course, I am not suggesting you can now spend every waking moment playing Fortnite, scrolling through Instagram, and watching baseball or random YouTube videos, but please don’t join the chess club and volunteer at a nursing home unless those activities appeal to you. If you have no idea what kinds of activities will be fun, then just pick a couple and get started. Trial and error is a great way to discover what you enjoy! Is there a club at school you have been curious about? How can you do more with something you already love? Can you teach little kids how to skateboard or play music, for example? If you love movies can you start writing reviews for the school paper or your own blog or YouTube channel? What are your friends involved in? Does a friend’s parent have an interesting job you could learn more about by shadowing them at work for a day? How about a summer or weekend job? Whatever you choose to try, you will be amazed at how much you learn about yourself and what you do and don’t enjoy.
- Personal life, spare time, and down time. I know you are busy, but just about all of us can find some of this, and I invite you to notice what you do with it. Do you spend it mindlessly watch shows or sports, or jumping around on social media? Instead, I encourage to occasionally do things that make you happy. Did you used to love to draw, read, write code or play music but stopped because you are ‘too busy’? How about finding a pick-up basketball game or going for a hike or run with friends? Does following the stock market or buying and selling shoes online thrill you? Do you enjoy cooking and hanging with your family, playing outside, or sitting quietly and looking out the window? I encourage to find little pockets of time for these pleasures. You will develop more clarity about what is fun and meaningful to you, which are the tools you need to “tell them what they REALLY want to hear”, which is what interests YOU, not what you think interests THEM.
If you implement these three suggestions, you will develop more clarity about what essay topic is fun, interesting, and meaningful to you, which are the tools you need to “tell them what they REALLY want to hear”, which is what interests YOU, not what you think interests THEM. Surprise!
They actually want to hear from the real, authentic you. If you explore this approach, your essays will be much easier to write, and, guess what? Way more interesting to read!