Learn How to Avoid Black-and-White Thinking
to Add Depth to Your Essays


It’s exciting to see that word is getting out to collegebound students, and those who support their admissions quests, that real-life stories power the most effective college application essays.

If you are new to this concept, read up on the narrative (storytelling) writing method that I promote all over this blog.

(If you are just starting learning about college application essays, I recommend first reading How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps. This post you are reading here is intended for students who have a topic and have started writing their first draft.)

Here’s the essence of my writing approach: You use your real-life stories to illustrate or demonstrate one of your defining qualities, characteristics or core values in your college application essay or personal statement. 

Once you understand how this works, however, it’s important to find ways to bring meaning and depth to your essay, beyond simply sharing real-life stories.

You must go on to explain what those stories meant to you, what you learned.


black and white thinking

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This is your opportunity to display what colleges and others call “intellectual vitality.” That’s just a fancy way to say how you think and learn, and what you value.

Most of the students I work with catch on quickly to the idea of using a real-life story in their essay. But many have trouble when it comes to moving to the next step of explaining what it meant to them. They often stumble when it comes to “digging deeper” in their essay, and developing their ideas and insights.

One common pitfall that I’ve seen is the tendency toward black-and-white thinking, especially when analyzing, reflecting and sharing their thoughts and opinions.

Black-and-white thinking is when everything needs to be all one way or the other, instead of somewhere in the middle. Better known as the gray areas (what you get when you mix black and white).
black and white thinkingWith so much riding on these essays, there’s a weird pressure on students to sound knowledgable and self-assured. As a result, I believe many feel that they need to draw absolute conclusions in their essays. Or make concrete, all-knowing statements.

My advice is to try to resist that pressure to be certain, to feel that there is only one way or rule.

Here’s the irony of black and white thinking: Even though that “I got this” certainty can make you feel confident and wise, it often reveals the opposite.

The truth is always in the gray.

Nothing is all good or all bad.

This ambiguity makes people who stick to black-and-white thinking uncomfortable. They prefer labels, generalities, extremes and feeling in control. (Anyone come to mind?)

In writing about ourselves, revealing doubt and vulnerability can be the most powerful way to connect with others. As well as demonstrate true inner strength and integrity.

Embracing the gray of life—the uncertain, the vague, the abstract—is often considered higher level thinking.

And guess who loves to see that?

Yup! College and universities.

When you are writing your essay, seek out the gray.


black and white thinking


I advise students to share a real-life story in their personal statement essay that involved some type of problem, and then go on to look for what they learned in dealing with that problem. (It’s a standard writing formula for a personal essay: Learn how it works in How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps.)

I warn them that they do not need to have had solved that problem to write a meaningful essay about it. In fact, this is an opportunity to explore the gray in your life.

Share the steps you took to deal with the problem, and how you felt, thought and learned along the way.

You don’t need to wrap it up with a big red bow, as in “problem solved forever.”

Because life isn’t usually like that. It’s complicated. Messy. Gray.

When you share what you learned, you don’t need to have learned that “everything” is one way, or “all good” or “all bad.”

It’s okay to not be sure of anything.

You can still share and assert what you think, and how you feel, and what steps you took in dealing with the problem.

Remember, true confidence is knowing what you don’t know. This humility also shows that you remain open and eager to learning more. (Guess again who loves to see that?)

black and white thinking

Here are some ways to go gray in your essay:

Look out for “absolute words” that flag black-and-white statements: (All, always, everyone, everybody, each, no one, none.)

Include open-ended questions. “Sometimes I wondered: “‘Why I was born with this strange ability to sense how others are feeling?'”

Share what you don’t know. “I was able to figure out the first part of coding equation, but I felt blindsided by the rest of it.”

Confess your missteps or regrets. “Looking back, I now see that I should have called the police the first time my father drove us home from the ball game drunk on too many beers.”

Explore both sides to an opinion. “In some ways, I love my ability to learn quickly, but often I notice that I getting going so quickly that I forget to delve deeper into things.”

If you follow my narrative approach to writing these essays, you will be showcasing a defining quality or characteristic, or a core value. One way to “go gray” is to examine and evaluate that quality or characteristic, and include both “the good” and “the bad” about it.

Here’s an example: The quality is “stubborn.”

“All my life I’ve had a stubborn streak. Looking back, I see that my resistance to trying something new or doing what I’m asked has cost me greatly. I’ve missed out on some unique opportunities, and I can never get those back. At the same time, I believe there are times when it’s important to dig in my heels, hold my ground and channel my inner donkey…It all depends on why I baulk and resist, or give in.”

Do you see that the writer is not saying that being stubborn is “all good” or “all bad?” Instead, it just depends. It’s relative to other factors. It’s gray.

The ability to see the gray in the world, and not be threatened by the unknowing, shows humility and trust.

Those who grapple with the gray reveal themselves as open-minded people; truth seekers.

I’ve written about how effective college application essays usually make the writer “likable.”

I’m not talking about popularity or kissing up to the admissions officers.

It’s more about letting them see how you think and feel in your essay, and having the confidence to include aspects about yourself that are not 100 percent positive or certain.

This is what makes us “likable” because we come across as self-effacing and open to learning more.


black and white thinking


I know there is so much pressure on these essays to wow admissions officers, and many students assume they need to be impressive and self-assured.

It’s counter-intuitive, but the most effective essays do not set out to impress and are meek in tone. They include everyday life experiences and problems instead of impressive feats and accomplishments.

And the writers also share and explain how they handled those problems and what they learned from them—and let their gray show in the process.

Dealing with those problems (challenges, mistakes, failures, set-backs, changes, crises and flaws) taught them certain things about themselves, and also forced them to question other parts of themselves and life.

The best essays ended with how much the writer still needed and wanted to learn.

And they weren’t just comfortable with the gray, it actually excited them.

That’s intellectual vitality.

So if you’ve got it, show it!

Go gray!

Ready to get crankin? Again, I suggest you start by reading How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps.