Today, during the two-hour break we had from rehearsal, I met up with the friends from high school. One of them is still a senior, out here visiting schools. It may be a tad sadistic, but one of the most enjoyable experiences for college students is to watch other kids apply to college. That speaks volumes about the pain involved in the process; and who doesn't like little bit a schadenfreude once and again? But an interesting point came up in conversation. Namely, why do college essays suck so much.
One easy argument against college essays is that they are simply extra work that nobody wants. But I think they are hard because, if done well, they require you to put a lot more into them then you might realize. Not only are you asked to put down 250-500 words, you are asked to fit yourself within that short space. And that is of course predicated on the assumption that you know what this "self" is. It's a challenge for anyone to encapsulate themselves in 500 words, but for a 17-year old it is often overwhelming. And this is on top of senior year school work and choosing colleges and general teenage life (which is never allows as much time for self-reflection as you want).
Michael Winerip of The New York Times has a wonderful line about this in an article he wrote recently: "They’re thinking big and exotic, when they need to think small and meaningful. The single most important advice I give them is to write about something that happened to them that made them feel deeply."
So maybe, instead of focusing picking just the right life story, they should focus on the internal relevance of the story. Don't write what you think they want you to write. Write about what is important to you, what you think defines you. And if you do it well it will also allow you to think deeply about yourself. Correctly done, the college essay should be a defining experience, a line drawn, before and after. (And, done correctly also means done!)