Is Your College Counselor Helping You Say What ONLY YOU Can... Or Making You Say The Same Thing As Everyone Else?
Image: Eva Via Music (that's me!)
I've been running Paved With Verbs for almost ten years, and my students always get incredible results.
The reason my process works, the reason so many of my students get into top schools like Stanford and Brown and MIT, is because I sincerely believe that everyone has a question they can answer better than anyone else.
I sincerely believe that everyone has a genius inside of them.
My job isn't to correct your grammar and tell you to "show, don't tell"
My job is to help you find that question and uncover your genius.
Which is why it's always such a bummer when I help a student write an essay ONLY THEY could write -- an essay about the incredibly inventive (and kind of hilarious) way she recruits people to the debate team, an essay about how tennis helped him understand the scientific method better than all his AP science classes combined, an essay about shooting in the hoops in the dark every night because he was only 4'10 but he wanted to make JV basketball...
And then their college counselor makes suggestions that completely erase the student's voice and uniqueness from the essay, turning this unforgettable, one-of-a-kind story...
Into the same essay EVERY tennis captain or debate president or aspiring scientist could have written.
This happens all the time.
And each time, I'm totally bewildered.
How can someone whose job is to help people stand out possibly think that they're going to make this student "stand out" by writing the exact same thing as everyone else?
At the same time, I recognize the value of intellectual humility.
When I read these counselors' comments, I always ask myself, "What if they are right and I am wrong? What might they know that I don't?"
I try to be as objective as possible, and occasionally decide individual pieces of feedback are good.
But often, it's the case that the counselor's feedback is coming from a person who doesn't know you that well (I would never give feedback before asking you enough questions to make sure I fully understand your perspective, values, and thought process -- if I don't understand that, how can I possibly give you useful advice?)...
Who doesn't have a graduate degree, isn't trained as an alumni interviewer for Stanford and Phillips Exeter, and did not study intelligence research with a Stanford admissions officer (and therefore, doesn't have a rubric in their head of exactly what top schools are looking for, how you embody those qualities, and how you can best present them in different parts of your application, and just isn't up-to-date on the latest trends and dramas in academia)...
Who isn't as creative of a writer as I am (sorry, but it's true -- I'm a blogger, songwriter, standup comedian, poet, and scientist; I have experience with all kinds of scholarly and creative writing)...
Chances are, their advice isn't going to make your essays better. It's just going to make them more like other people's.
Which isn't goin to help you stand out, in my opinion and experience.
So what should you do if your counselor or friends -- or even strangers on the internet -- give you advice and you're not sure if you should take it?
1. Understand that, at some point, feedback becomes subjective.
On a first or second draft, most people are going to give you most of the same feedback. It's an early draft! The things that are wrong are going to be more objectively wrong, meaning more consensus.
(With the exception of the dumb advice a lot of people give about "taboo essay topics," like the sports captain essay or the service trip essay. That advice, though, is objectively bad. There is no such thing as a bad essay topic. There are only bad essays. Anyone who tells you there is such thing as a bad essay topic is not a good writer and their subsequent advice should be taken with a pound of salt.)
But by the time you're working on your final draft, though, feedback is going to be subjective. Some people love Faulker. Some people love Shakespeare. Some people hate both.
So if you're confident about your essays and you get advice you don't agree with, ask yourself if the feedback is because of a subjective preference, or if there is actually a problem worth addressing.
2. Understand that, at the end of the day, this is YOUR essay, and it is TOTALLY OKAY to ignore feedback.
I spoke with a student recently who showed up to a meeting with a new version of every one of his Stanford essays.
I asked him if he liked the new essays. (They weren't very good.)
He said no.
I asked why he was considering submitting them, then.
He said because his college counselor at school has made the suggestions. I walked him through my reasoning about why his original essays were significantly better (the fact that there was no inter-rater reliability proves how subjective the feedback truly becomes at some point), then asked him which set of essays he preferred.
The originals, he answered.
"Are you meeting your school counselor again?" I asked.
"What are you going to say to him about the fact that you ignored most of his edits?"
"That's......... That's a good question."
So we walked through it. We imagined the office. We imagined the counselor. We talked about exactly what the student wanted to tell his counselor, since it's actually really useful to rehearse awkward conversations before you have them to make sure you already know what you want to say before the awkward moment. Eventually, he settled on something like, "Mr. T, I really appreciate you taking the time to meet with me, and I've incorporated some of your feedback, but ultimately, this is the version of the essays that I think best tells my story."
Trust me. No one's feelings were hurt. You cannot hurt my feelings by disagreeing with me or ignoring my suggestions. If I were going to let my feelings get hurt by you presenting yourself the way you want to, then I shouldn't be in this line of work. That's just childish.
It's not my essays.
You need to do them your way.
3. Seriously consider that the advice might be good.
As artists, as writers, it's easy to get weird about what we create.
I know I just spent several paragraphs telling you to ignore bad advice.
But before you do, sincerely, seriously ask yourself, "Could this advice be good? Could there be a better way to write this essay?"
4. Think about the advice-giver's background and perspective and compare it to that of the admissions officers who will be reading your essays.
Generally, the better someone knows you, the better they can give you advice. That's why my process works -- I ask tons of questions to get to know you before I make any suggestions. If I don't know you, my advice is worthless.
Everyone's approaching your essays from their own perspective.
Sometimes, parents give advice based on the culture, country, or education system they grew up in. While their suggestions might be helpful somewhere else in the world, they might not be super helpful in the US.
Sometimes, teenagers give advice based on what they, as teenagers who have never applied to college or written cover letters or interviewed for a job before, think is "cringe." But admissions officers have not only read thousands of essays -- they've also spent literal decades getting comfortable "bragging" about themselves. When you're 17, talking about how wonderful and amazing you are does feel super cringe. But by the time you're 25, 35, or even older, it's as easy as talking about the weather (another skill that's not super easy for most teenagers, actually, due primarily to a lack of experience doing so, according to F* You Very Much: Understanding the Culture of Rudeness -- and What We Can Do About It).
The point is, as you're considering which advice to take and which to ignore, think about why someone would be giving the advice they're giving.
If you're struggling with your college essays and want to pile on yet another opinion, feel free to check out my rates and services contact me to schedule a meeting.
Eva Glasrud completed her B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. She is now a college counselor and life coach for gifted youth.