Authentic Admissions Essays: Be Who You Are, Not Who You Think They Want

Two friends of mine in the world of Educational Consulting recently published a book which is completely aligned with my philosophy of writing college essays.  Evan Forster and David Thomas, educational consultants in Manhattan, wrote The MBA Reality Check: Make the School You Want, Want You. This book focuses on applying to MBA programs, but all of its lessons are applicable to students applying to college.

According to Evan and David, the key to creating an application that will stand out from the pack is to craft an application that is genuine, that comes from a place of honesty, passion, and vulnerability. The authors give dozens of examples of students who take the right kind of risks with their essays and allow the admissions readers to get glimpses of their character, their fears, their dreams. Essays like these are innately inspiring, and they simply ring true. Authenticity is powerful!

I have personally broken out my copy of The MBA Reality Check on multiple occasions to illustrate to students what it looks like to take the right risks in their applications. The book beautifully lays out “before” and “after” examples from a wide variety of students with greatly diverse life experiences. This is incredibly instructive. Here’s the “play it safe” version, and here’s the “dive in, take the risk” version. I use this book to inspire my students: Take the risk! Put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid of letting people in to see your wounds or your loftiest aspirations.

Good essays cut through the marketing and self-promotion that students feel they must engage in when applying to college or graduate school.  This focus on “looking good” will ruin an otherwise strong college or graduate-school essay.  Take the risk of being authentic, owning your shortcomings, honestly portraying your passions, claiming your victories.

In MBA Reality Check, the applicants move beyond the realm of “looking good.”  One woman writes of her greatest personal accomplishment: learning to swim.  One man writes of his failure to confront racism in his workplace and what he learned from the experience.  One applicant wrote of his passion for fighting fires, another of his life-long dream to reinvigorate the World Wrestling Entertainment Corporation.

These applicants learned that the most powerful way to recruit others, engage them, and bring them to your cause, is to be authentic.  Honesty draws people in. It’s a mammal thing.  Neuroscientists call it limbic resonance, this connection between our respective mammalian brains.  These connections helped our species survive for millennia and continue to serve us today.  As members of the human team, it’s a good strategy to enroll others in our causes and approach them from a place of honesty.  We can generally sniff out pretense and posturing.  But, we are attracted to authenticity.

As the season of college applications is rapidly approaching, the time to write authentically and powerfully is upon us.  When you sit down to write your college essays, remember to drop the pretense of giving the admissions committee what you think they might want to read.  Everybody writes those essays. Write the essays that are true for you.  Allow the reader of your application to learn about your values, passions and vulnerabilities.  Make the human connection and you will be on your way to gaining an advocate on the admissions committee.

If you are looking for a few other ideas, check out an article I put together in 2008 on the topic of writing strong essays.  It’s a good idea to start this process early and give yourself plenty of time to let the creativity flow.  Your college essays will take a significant amount of time and will require you to write in a novel way.  This can be a process of introspection and self-discovery, and at the minimum it can be a valuable exercise in authentic self-expression.


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