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Possibly the Three Most Important Words You Can Say (or Hear)

Nope! Not "I love you," although in many arenas that would be a tie for first place. Ditto "I am sorry," which has an incalculable value when you mean it. But when we're talking about the college admissions landscape, and especially if you're looking for help navigating it, I want to emphasize that you should be super skeptical of anyone—teacher, counselor, consultant, coach, tutor—who cannot say the words "I DON'T KNOW."

There is awesome power in acknowledging what we don't know. When we say those words, we make room for questions, possibilities, potentialities. Questions are where ALL the good stuff is. On your college journey and in the rest of your life.

And guess what? We don't know! We can tell you where you probably do or don't stand a chance of getting in, based on statistics and extrapolations. We can make educated guesses about what kinds of schools are right for you. We can show you scattergrams and percentiles and test score averages and make inferences. But the reality is we don't know. There is more randomness and roulette and dumb luck in the college admissions landscape than any of us want to admit. So take anyone who "knows" what's going to happen to your applications with a big old grain of salt. And anyone who tells you what "they" want to hear about you in a college essay? Not just a grain of salt—you want the whole dang shaker when that happens.

"They" will tell you, for example, to stay the hell away from politics and religion, which is often excellent advice for family get-togethers. And in some cases it's risky in a college essay, too. But this past season, I saw an evangelical Christian get into the University of California with an essay that was all about her relationship with God. She kept saying "I know I'm not supposed to talk about this," but it kept coming up, because guess what? It was a massive part of who she is. I finally said she should write about her re-baptism and just be prepared to circular-file it and start over if it really felt dangerous. Once she accepted this idea and wrote about her relationship with her church, she felt authentic, and liberated, and from there, amazing things began to happen. Insights she hadn't had before. A salty sense of humor she had been afraid to let rip, but that became the soul of that essay. An investigation into what had made her that person in the first place. The essay was inspired, and it worked in her favor.

As a writer, I genuinely believe that when we write anything, it's for the same reason scientists perform experiments: we want to test a hypothesis. We have an idea of something that might be true and we want to see if it holds up under scrutiny. This happens all the time in scholarly writing: your 11th grade English teacher asks for a three-pager on a Jane Austen novel and you're pretty sure your thesis is going to be around women's constricted roles in society but by the time you've analyzed everything you decide the real issue in that novel is classism, not misogyny. It happens all the time—even, and maybe especially, in personal writing. A common essay prompt in this space is "if you could have a Marvel-style superpower, what would it be and why?" Most people can answer the "what" pretty fast. The "why" is a rabbit hole, even for people who think they know why. One of my students who fielded this question from Mount Holyoke College immediately chose super-speed, but as we probed the "sure, but WHY?" she went from answers like "Because I could do more. I could run to Mexico for the weekend if I felt like it. I could read all the books," to the realization that this particular question is inherently a Rorschach test of where a given person feels a deficiency or a wound: in her case, the need for speed was tied to her tendency to become paralyzed with indecision, and she craved forward motion that she felt unable to give herself. (PS, Mount Holyoke said yes.)

Your answers to college application prompts aren't necessarily about what you already know. In fact, what you already know might just be the least interesting thing about you. In the process of asking yourself WHY you chose the question you chose, you're overwhelmingly likely to discover things about yourself that you hadn't really realized yet. When you find that thrill of self-discovery, the essays start writing themselves. So if you're at the beginning of this journey and looking for assurances and clear yeses and nos—please know they're not your best friend in this case. The words "I don't know" are immensely powerful. They open doors—doors of self-perception and discovery, and in all likelihood, doors to that college you're dying to get a yes from.

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