As college application season arrives, the biggest struggle for many students is deciding what to write about for their personal essay. Channeling one’s inner self into a package that shines in print is not easy for anyone, but it is particularly challenging for teenagers who have not previously written about themselves in such a vulnerable way.
Students tend to start with obvious — and sometimes trite — topics: successes and failures, times of struggle, or mistakes that produced valuable lessons. However, the best essays are born when students dig deeper and share something that makes them tear up, or causes their eyes to twinkle or their tones to shift.
The only genuine way for students to recognize these personal moments of authenticity is for them to hear it for themselves. They need auditory feedback to recognize a pause, a moment of vulnerability, or a shift in their tone when they talk about the topic that should be the focus of their college essays. The insider secret? They should record themselves speaking about something that they love, that’s disappointing or that gets them fired up about life. They’ll hear it when it happens.
After guiding hundreds of these recorded chats with students over the past 20 years, I have noticed a common theme among those whose college essays brought about the best results in admissions to their top-choice colleges. The students who talk about moments of genuine kindness reveal more authenticity than those who focus on other subjects.
One student who was passionate about science and engineering lit up while talking about volunteering at a local science museum, planning creative projects for kids and narrating the planetarium show.
Another student talked about how his family’s deep concern for and commitment to the well-being of abused and neglected animals helped teach him to be more compassionate toward people.
One compared the experience of caring for her sick mother while going to school to trying to keep a full glass of water from spilling during an obstacle course. It’s impossible, of course. Water spills.
And one who lived in a home that couldn’t always afford to put dinner on the table spent every Sunday at his local church feeding the homeless. He knew how it felt to be hungry.
These students discovered something about themselves when they identified the situations in which they were the most kind. Kindness builds character, and colleges (and employers) care about character. Yes, grades, course rigor and test scores matter. But consider that most student applications will look very similar with just a straight numbers comparison. Kindness allows students to stand out.
A recent report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Making Caring Common, speaks to this. Colleges want students who care. They are drawn to applicants who show concern for others, promote good citizenship and civic engagement and develop personal responsibility. Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, says they “want students who have achieved in and out of the classroom, but [they] are also looking for things harder to quantify, [like] authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good.”
Let’s take a step back for a second and think about why colleges care about students being kind. They care because society cares. Quite simply, we need more kindness in our homes, in our schools and in our communities. The impact of enduring kindness supersedes the name of the school on a college sweatshirt. Being yourself and channeling your inner kindness to build character should be the focus. Getting into your top-choice college should be the bonus of being kind, not the reason to be kind.
So channel your inner kindness. Consider the situations when you’re the kindest, and the people to whom you’re naturally kind. Why would that be? What does it say about you if you feel the most fulfilled when you are being kind to children or to strangers or to your teachers or to horses or to an elderly woman crossing the street? Think about that. It will tell you something about yourself, reveal a brilliant story to share, and give you a reason to be proud of who you are.
That matters for life, not just for college.
Jennifer Winward is an instructor at the University of California at San Diego, an 18-year veteran of high school tutoring, and the founder and lead instructor of Winward Academy. She earned her PhD specializing in adolescent brain development and adolescent learning.
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