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How Do I Know if I'm Getting 'Good' College Essay Advice?

Hint: if your advisor leads often with the words "always" and "never," consider backing away.

You're in a great school system, or attend a college-preparatory independent school—and you've even got parents paying a third-party college counselor a small fortune for their sage guidance. So you're good, right?

Sigh. Maybe?

I work with all kinds of applicants—privileged and under-resourced, English learners and accomplished writers, students from amazing schools and troubled ones, first generation applicants and families with multi-generational Ivy legacy status. In all that diversity, one of the clingiest through lines is bad advice—especially, though not limited to, what students "should" and "shouldn't" do in their essays.

This process is stressful. People want guidelines and reassurances; sometimes we just feel better when we believe we've followed the rules. Here's the thing: beyond things like "spell words correctly" there aren't many rules.

So if anyone—especially anyone whose job is guiding your student through the Hunger Games spinoff that is applying to college—tells you there is a formula for writing a college essay, or comes at you with a lot of "always" and "never" advice? Be very, very careful with this person. They are either mistaken, or they are afraid of being blamed when you don't get the red carpet treatment from Yale.

"Always" and "Never" don't exist in nature, and they definitely don't exist in the Common App. Be wary of anyone laying the following on you like they came down from Mount Sinai on engraved stone tablets. I don't care how many years they worked in admissions at Skidmore or how many colleges they personally got admitted to: any of these commandments is grounds for concern.

1) Thou shalt not write about sports.

Imagine if someone had told Pat Conroy that, and he'd actually listened. It's true, lots of people write about sports. Some do it well, some don't. But let's say you're a D1-eligible basketball player looking to play in college because basketball is the love of your life. Are you SURE writing about that is "wrong?" I'm not.

Good essays come from topics the applicant is passionate about. If you're a serious athlete and your sport is your universe, of course you're going to write about it. Honestly, it would be weird if you didn't. Just like your layup, your triple axle, or your 100-meter butterfly, your success is dependent on your technique.

2) Thou shalt not write about religion or politics.

Great advice for the Thanksgiving dinner table, especially if your conspiracist Aunt Ruthie has hit the sauce early in the day. Absolutely wretched advice if you're a prospective international relations major targeting Georgetown. Or Notre Dame. Or Boston College.

Once in a while I have to break it to someone that if they're gunning for UC Berkeley, they might want to keep their inner Commander Waterford under wraps unless they have a profoundly sophisticated take on reactionary conservatism; or that "women should be subservient to men because the Bible says so" might not be a wise way to approach Mount Holyoke. (By the same token, if your sweet spot is Point Loma Nazarene or Brigham Young, you should think twice about coming at them like the reincarnation of Charles Bukowski.) I've seen amazing essays on political and religious topics, and I've seen them get folks accepted to the likes of USC, NYU, Barnard, Brown, and yes, Georgetown. This one's all about reading the room (and the wording of the prompt) and responding with thoughtfulness, authenticity and confidence.

3) Thou shalt not write about a personal tragedy.

Yeah. Riiiiiiiight.

This chestnut is easily internalized by teens who are terrified of "not acknowledging their privilege" or seeming attached to "a sob story." If anyone tells you you "can't" or "shouldn't" write about your parents' gnarly custody battle, an abusive teacher, your sister's descent into drug addiction or the suicide of your close friend, please take that with a grain of salt. Again, this is not about the inherent value of the subject matter. It's 100% execution.

I recently had a wonderful student—funny, bright, motivated, and a polished writer. Oddly, we were struggling to stick the landing on an essay. One day we were talking about how she'd struggled to assimilate into her high school because she'd moved from Florida to the Bay Area in 9th grade—most of her California schoolmates had lived in the same small town all their lives and "didn't get it" about some things. When I probed that comment, she said: "I'm from Parkland." She'd been connected to several of the victims of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas shooting, and struggled to understand why her new classmates (and teachers) were oblivious to the looming peril of gun violence. Once she had permission to write about that, it generated a magnificent essay.

4) Thou shalt not write about a learning difference or psychological health challenge.

I won't lie to you: I've fielded about a zillion mind-numbing essays about ADHD and anxiety and grades. There is such a thing as identifying too closely with a personal challenge—especially if you haven't really gleaned any insight from it yet.

But guess what? If your processing disorder has run your life and forced you to develop a Darwin-worthy array of adaptations to get through the day, then I sincerely doubt you're on team "no insight." If you're in the unenviable position of being 18 and already knowing what it's like inside a psych hospital, I bet you've developed some opinions on mental healthcare. Again, this is 100% about execution. No topic is inherently off limits; some are just a little trickier than others. In my experience, delving into the tricky stuff pays off.

5) Thou shalt not wax comedic.

Possibly my favorite bad advice of all time. When you're in the presence of a genuinely funny person, what happens to you? You laugh, you think about something in a new way, you feel enlivened and energized—right?

For most humans (and believe it or not, college application screeners qualify as "humans,") a great sense of humor signals high intelligence, a sense of the bigger picture, social awareness, confidence and a well-managed ego. Is it possible for a "schtick" to fall flat? Hell yes! Can it be risky to spend your precious 650 words on a John Mulaney monologue? John Mulaney would probably be the first to say "Yup!" But to be blunt, it's no more risky than being a joyless sad-sack, a pedantic blowhard, or a lazy, incurious Entitlement-Pants. I've seen sketch-comedy essays bag yeses from Berkeley, UCLA, Princeton and Harvey Mudd, among others.

It's seldom the "what" of a college essay that matters. It's the "why," and the "how." Anyone who tells you otherwise is to be regarded with skepticism: they probably don't specialize in actual writing. You have so much more latitude than you think.

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