Precocious juniors all across the country are currently drafting their essays--in other words, sitting in front of a blank screen, completely paralyzed.
A viral op-ed in the Times suggests a unique place to start: kindness.
Rebecca Sabky, a former admissions director at Dartmouth (who interestingly enough admitted that she was rejected from where she now admits students), told two anecdotes about students who stood out from the dizzying crowd of overachievers.
One chased her down to the parking lot after her info session to hand her a granola bar she dropped in the cafeteria. Another had a unique recommendation letter from the school custodian who noted that the student knew all of the names of the janitorial staff and treated them with the same respect as anyone else.
Here's what NOT to do:
MAKE THE INFO SESSION ABOUT YOURSELF
When I give college information sessions at high schools, I’m used to being swarmed by students. Usually, as soon as my lecture ends, they run up to hand me their résumés, fighting for my attention so that they can tell me about their internships or summer science programs.
GET REC LETTERS BY FANCY SCHMANCY PEOPLE WHO DON'T KNOW YOU
Letters of recommendation are typically superfluous, written by people who the applicant thinks will impress a school. We regularly receive letters from former presidents, celebrities, trustee relatives and Olympic athletes. But they general fail to provide us with another angle on who the student is, or could be as a member of our community.
BE MEAN TO YOUR FAM ON THE CAMPUS TOUR
Until admissions committees figure out a way to effectively recognize the genuine but intangible personal qualities of applicants, we must rely on little things to make the difference. Sometimes an inappropriate email address is more telling than a personal essay. The way a student acts toward his parents on a campus tour can mean as much as a standardized test score. And, as I learned from that custodian, a sincere character evaluation from someone unexpected will mean more to us than any boilerplate recommendation from a former president or famous golfer.
In this crazy competitive environment, it's hard to blame the students who seize the opportunity to impress the person who holds their futures in her hands.
Whether you use this as inspiration for a topic you wouldn't have otherwise considered or you keep this in mind at your next campus visit, it's a good tip to remember as you consider your entire application.
After reading your essay, ask yourself: do I come across as a good person here? If you don't trust yourself to be objective, ask someone who doesn't know you that well to read it and offer their perspective.
Of course, there's a fine line between coming across as kind and humble and bragging about your magnanimity.
That's why getting that outside perspective is key: the first thing I focus on in any essay is: do you look your best? Or do you sound negative, bitter, ungrateful?
Being a teenager is hard and it's ok to feel those things—but it's just not smart to present that side of yourself to the one thing admissions officers use to get to know you.