Feeling Pressure to Write
Don’t Do It!
Colleges and universities can no longer use your race as a factor in determining whether to accept you to their schools, since the landmark Supreme Court ruling on June 29th abolished most of Affirmative Action in our country.
Although schools are supposed to be colorblind now, many admissions officers are still on the prowl for minority students who can maintain the diversity on their campuses.
Being Black, Hispanic or Native Indian can still be a huge advantage in getting admitted to your dream school, especially the most competitive ones.
Since you no longer will be asked to check a box about your race, you may want to find other ways to let them know your heritage if you are a minority.
The most obvious place is in your college application essays.
Revealing your Race and Writing about Race are Very Different
That said, I would think twice before writing about the topic of race in general.
There’s a big difference between revealing your individual race in the context of what you have to say in your college app essay and writing about the nature of race or race-related issues as the central topic in your essay.
If you want to let your schools know your race, you can weave in details that will tip them off.
Mention that you were the first Black to join your local birdwatching club.
Or that you often cross the Mexican border in Texas on weekends to visit your grandmother.
Another example would be to talk about how you trained to dance in your first Powwow.
My main message here is that you can allude to your heritage in your essay–if you believe that will give you an advantage–but I don’t think tackling the larger subject of race will help you.
In fact, I think it could hurt.
As I say all over this blog, the main goal of your college application essay to find personal stories to share that will help you stand out from the competition.
The last thing you want is to write about topic that everyone else is using.
And this year, that could very well be the topic of race.
When the Supreme Court ruled to ban schools from using race as an admissions factor, the main Supreme Court Justice who pushed for this had a lot to say about the admissions process and specifically what students could write about in their essays.
And most of what he said was very confusing. (Not to mention, why does he have the authority to tell students what to write about, in these applications or anywhere? The ruling that effectively banned affirmative action is targeting those at colleges and universities who make the acceptance decisions, not the students who are applying.)
Bad Advice from the Top
In a nutshell, Chief Justice John G. Roberts told the court that it would be okay for schools to ask student applicants to discuss how race (ie discrimination) has affected them in their essays. At the same time, he warned schools not to use the essays to glean students’ individual race to use as a factor in their acceptance.
Yes, a very mixed message.
And one that was blasted out all over the national media.
But just because Roberts had a lot to say about race in college essays–saying that you can write about it in a very specific way–doesn’t mean you should write about it.
He was mainly defending his decision; not worrying about your chances of getting into your dream school.
Here’s one of his quotes on this subject: Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion [eg via their college app essay] of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise. … A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race.
I believe what Roberts didn’t understand is how admissions officers use these essays.
Or the fundamental fact that schools can only control what they ask students to write about (via essay prompts); they have no control over what students actually write.
At a time when many schools have dropped using standardized tests in the admissions process, the college application essay has become one of the last remaining tools admissions officers can use to select one student over the other.
At the most competitive schools, it’s even more important since so many students share almost identical applications filled with stellar grades, extracurricular activities and impressive accomplishments.
An effective college application essay (personal statement for The Common Application and other applications) must help a student stand out from the competition.
If an essay uses an overdone topic or theme (such as race), the college admissions officers can have a hard time using it to differentiate the writer from other students.
There are many topics that have traditionally been over-used, everything from writing about a torn ACL to a dying beloved grandfather.
Savvy college admissions consultants steer students away from these hackneyed topics for good reason.
Now we have the top judicial leader in the land telling students to write about race.
Pick a Topic that Works Best for You!
Chances are there will be multitudinous college application essays on this topic.
For that reason alone, these essays will not do their job for their authors–no matter how brilliantly they share their personal stories of discrimination or insights on the history of race in our country.
Of course, there could be a few that have an original twist or a personal story that jumps out at the reader.
I feel bad for college admissions officers who could be bombarded with essays on race this year, and lose that critical tool in understanding the unique personalities and character of their applicants–so they can pick the ones they feel will be the best pick at their school.
There are a million other topics out there that will help you showcase your individuality and greatness.
Keep your goal in mind while applying for schools at the top of your mind: you want to get accepted.
So unless the way race has impacted you in your life has been your most life-defining issue and you can find a compelling story to share to illuminate it, pick something else!
If you believe your admission chances could be boosted if a target school learns your race, feel free to weave in information about yourself that will clue them in. If you think it could hurt your chances, leave it out.
I assume colleges and universities are scrambling to adjust their applications and even essay prompts. So keep an eye out for any advice they are sending out in upcoming weeks and months, and hopefully you will get more clarification on this issue. (It’s possible schools will now include a new prompt asking students to write about how race affected them–but I doubt those essays will help admissions officers make their admittance decisions.)
In the meantime, don’t panic and keep your eye on the ball, and start brainstorming the perfect topic for YOU!
The Supreme Court knocked down Affirmative Action today.
This landmark ruling means colleges and universities will no longer be allowed to use race as a factor in who they admit.
Technically, there will no longer be race-based boxes to check on applications.
Whether you like this or not, the fallout in academia and the college admissions industry will be immediate and confusing.
Without the help of Affirmative Action policies, education officials still pursuing student diversity are expected to start using the college admissions essays as a way to discern students’ racial backgrounds–even though schools are now supposed to be colorblind in their selection process.
My understanding after reading the first round of news articles about the ruling is that it still allows schools to invite applicants to share “how race affected” them in their college application essays.
It’s a massive gray area, however, as to how far they will push these efforts when it comes to interpreting and enforcing the new ruling.
Should You Write About Your Race?
On the other end of the admissions process, students will need to decide if they want to use their college application essays to reveal their racial background, and/or as a platform to discuss “how race affected” them.
To me, this decision mainly depends on whether a student believes their race could help or hurt their admission chances.
And if and how they want to play this high-stakes game.
Photo by Miles Peacock
Up until now, it was generally considered an advantage if a student was Black or Hispanic, since predominantly white colleges and universities pursued more diversified student bodies in recent decades.
Students who were Asian, however, often found their ethnicity worked against them as they often comprised the highest percentage of applicants, and were turned down despite being among the most academically competitive. Especially at the most prestigious schools.
Sadly, many of my Asian students felt pressure to try to downplay their racial and even cultural backgrounds in their essays, even though those were often fascinating and life-defining influences in their lives.
Overall, I believe Asian applicants will benefit from this new “colorblind” mandate, and get the fair shake they deserve from colleges and universities. Especially the Ivies and other highly competitive schools.
It’s a pretty sick system when the message for college-bound students amounts to this: If you are a desired minority, such as Black, Hispanic or Native American, find a way to let your schools know this, using your college app essay if necessary to tip them off. If you are Asian (especially Chinese or Korean), a demographic many schools feel inundated with, keep your heritage on the low down. Of course, if you are white and privileged, especially having Legacy at a school, you are still sitting pretty. (Personally, I hope these glaring inequities are the final cue for colleges and universities to scrap their discriminatory legacy programs. Harvard and Yale, why not start with you?)
That said, if you do want your target schools to know your racial background, how do you write about it in your college application essay?
I assume you can’t get in trouble since it’s the schools that have been banned from using race in their admissions decisions. If you choose to share your race with them, that is not illegal. It’s up to them how they choose to solicit and use that information.
Personally, I don’t think a student should use their race as the main topic of her or his main college app essay. It’s too broad and generic, and would not be effective in setting you apart from other applicants.
However, if you want the school to know your racial background, you can feature that information in the background of your essay, especially if you share a personal story or experience about a quality or activity related to your racial background. (This is based on the advice from a Supreme Court Justice; see below)
Photo by Alexander Gray
There are other ways to more subtly reveal your racial background in your essays, if that’s your goal. Often telling details are naturally woven into your storytelling anyway. For instance, you could mention that your family attended the only all-Black church in your small town. Or that your parents were born and raised in Mexico City. Or share the time your grandmother brought you to your first Pow-wow.
If college admissions officers are actively looking for information about your racial background in these essays, little details like these will deliver the message loud and clear.
How Far Can You Go?
Here’s the best guidance we have so far in how to think about writing about your race in your essay, straight from the Supreme Court Justice most adamantly against affirmative action:
In the decision striking down affirmative action policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, “Nothing prohibits universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”
However, the chief justice also took a shot across the bow at anyone who might be thinking that the essay could be used as a surreptitious means of racial selection.
“Despite the dissent’s assertion to the contrary, universities may not simply establish through the application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today,” he wrote, underscoring, “What cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly.”
Not sure this clarifies things that much. This will be up to the colleges and universities, and their lawyers, to figure out.
Meanwhile, my best advice is to find a college application essay topic that helps you reveal what makes you tick, and share experiences that have defined how you learn and what you most care about. If those are related to your racial background, and/or you want to work in details that reveal your racial background, go for it!
Or just leave it all out, and keep them guessing.
Don’t let all this distract you from your main goal: to write a college application essay about what makes you unique and special.
Whether that involves your skin color or not is up to you.
When I first heard about ChatGPT, and how this new artificial intelligence bot could write college essays for students, I thought, “Ugh oh, looks like my no one is going to need my services anymore” for help with their college application essays.
Apparently, the bot generates essays that can fool teachers and even Turnitin.com. Yikes!
Of course, the education world is freaking out. There’s talk of returning to pen and paper for essay assignments.
At the moment, the ChatGPT model by Open AI is free. So I tried it out.
(See below what it wrote when I entered: “Write a college application essay”)
My goal was to see if ChatGPT could write a viable college application essay.
I’m excited to work with students this summer who get to attend the My Pathway to College pre-college experience in sunny San Diego. During the weeklong conference, which will be held on the gorgeous campus at the University of San Diego (the private liberal arts college; not to be confused with the University of California at San Diego campus), I will take students through the process of writing their college application essays.
We will start with my popular, interactive brainstorming exercises that help students find that magic topic to help their applications stand out among the pack. Then I guide them to craft narrative-style, slice-of-life essays that showcase their unique personalities and character.
They will practice the most effective writing techniques, such as anecdotes, to power their essays and bring depth and meaning. At the end, they will learn tips and advice on self-editing and polishing their work. The goal is that students come home with a completed personal statement essay (often known as the “CommonApp Essay,” which they can use with their Common Application and other college or university applications.
To me, one of the best ways to help students decide where to apply to college is to spend time on campuses. This conference goes one step further, and invites students to actually live at one of the top liberal arts college campuses with other college-bound friends, where they will live in student dorms and dine together.
I have had the pleasure of working with the sponsor of the conference, Jennifer MacLure, an independent college admissions counselor from My Pathway to College, in the past, and am confident she and her team will create an exciting, supportive and productive environment for her lucky students.
Check out the video (above) that she put together on this conference so you can learn more about it, and if it’s something you or someone you know would be interested. Good luck!
A Great Essay Topic? Anything But the Coronavirus!
When counseling students on finding great topics for their college application essays, I often direct them to explore problems they have faced in their lives.
Problems provide the perfect springboard for writing a compelling personal statement. (Problems = challenge, obstacle, mistake, flaw, phobia, conflict, change, etc.) If you faced a problem, big or small, it means that:
1. Something interesting and personal happened
2. You had to deal with it
3. You learned something
This simple framework can help you share your personal stories in your essay, and then also examine, explore and share how they shaped you and what you care about (your values).
And voila! A college application essay that is engaging, meaningful and memorable.
So if this simple approach works, and all you need is a juicy problem to spin into an effective essay, wouldn’t you want to write about the biggest problem the world is facing right now?
A global pandemic that has literally shut down life as we know it, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, snuffed out jobs, forced families to hide in their homes and has no clear end in sight?
I know this is a hard time for many students and families. To do my small part to try to ease the financial strain due to the current pandemic, I will be offering FREE webinars this summer to help students get a head start on their college application essays. The first one will be Wednesday, July 8, at 3 p.m. via Zoom meetings.
During our sessions, I will walk you through the basics of what makes a great essay, and then help you brainstorm topic ideas. Time allowing, I will also share other advice and tips on structuring and editing essays to make them focused and meaningful. Students will learn the step-by-step process that I have taught thousands of students over the last decade. We will end with a Q&A session, so bring your questions (eg. topic ideas you have that you would like feedback on…).
The vibe will be very informal, friendly and encouraging and ideally leave you eager to get cranking on your college application essays! I will focus on advice and ideas on how write the most common essay–the personal statement. This is the first-person essay that you write about yourself, and is required for The Common Application, The Coalition Application and other applications, such as for scholarships, etc. The tips and instruction you get in this session should also help you with other college application essays, such as for the University of California, common supplemental essays, etc. It’s all about learning how to pick topics and write about yourself, and what you care about and why.
Participants Can Get My Companion Online Essay Writing Bootcamp Course for Only $20! (Normally almost $100!)
BONUS! Also, any students who would like access to my popular online essay writing course (that I sell for $99)–which includes my best-selling writing guides (eg Escape Essay Hell and Heavenly Essays), short instructional videos and other helpful resources–can get it by simply donating a minimum of $20 to any non-profit organization working to support the underprivileged in our country (just email copy of receipt). Any students who can’t afford this donation for whatever reason can get it for free by asking.
HOW TO SIGN UP: For a link to my first webinar on Wednesday, July 8, please send me, Janine Robinson, an email at: EssayHell@gmail.com. Depending on demand, I will be giving weekly webinars through the month of July and into August. Send me an email for future dates and/or watch this page. Tell your friends!
Here are a couple awesome organizations that could use your support (click name of organization to learn more about these groups and how to donate). Or pick one you like:
I know most of your are busy with online schooling. If you find extra time on your hands, and want a great way to practice narrative writing to prepare for your college application essays, start a diary about your Coronavirus experience as soon as you can.
For most of you, this could be the most dramatic, real-life experience of your life–and it’s happening right now.
For some of you, the hardest part so far has been the boredom of staying at home, cancelled events and not seeing friends. I hope that is your biggest problem. Many students will experience more intense repercussions from this pandemic, including losing loved ones, watching parents get laid off from jobs and enduring financial and emotional hardship.
All of you will have stories to tell. It’s not necessarily one long tale. But many small moments, incidents, conversations, emotions, insights, questions, conflicts, frustrations, jokes, and so on. If you’re smart, start collecting them now.
Trust me–someday you will be so glad you took the time to write down the details of your experience. You think you will never forget what it’s like now, but you will.
Also, keeping a Coronavirus diary (or journal, same thing) is an awesome exercise to learn the style of writing (narrative/story-telling) you will need to ace your college application essays.
This pandemic started a while ago, but you can start a diary capturing your unique and highly personal experience NOW! It’s not too late.
Even though COVID-19 most likely will not be a great essay topic on its own, there’s a strong chance it still will play a big or small part of your essays.
How to Start Your Diary or Journal
It’s best if you can find some type of self-contained notebook. Lined or unlined. Personal preference. If you don’t have one single notebook, just find a way to collect your pages, either in an envelope or folder. You can always bind them together later. You can also write on the computer. Create a file and get started (I would print out your work, if possible, as back-up.)
Find a time of day that works for you to spend at least 10-15 minutes to write. It can be in the morning or afternoon or before you go to bed–again, your call. Just make a commitment to write something–anything–every day. If you miss a day, or even several, don’t let that stop you. Dive back in whenever you can. Put a reminder on your phone.
At the top of each entry, put the day and date. Doodling is totally allowed!
Resist the urge to erase. Even if you re-read what you wrote, and it sounds dumb or cheesy or not how you want, just LEAVE IT ALONE. That is your voice at the moment, and it is fine. If what you write really bugs you, just don’t read it. Keep writing.
WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT?
Diaries are usually a mixture of recounting what happened to you during the last day or so, and your feelings about those events. You can give an overview of your day, or pick one or two interesting things that happened. It’s up to you. If you give an overview, stick with chronological order–start with how it began, what you did, and go from there. If you just want to share one thing that happened, just start with that. There are no rules.
The other part of a diary, besides telling what you did and what happened, is to write about what it meant to you. This can include a lot of reflecting, examining and analyzing what happened. You can also share how you felt and what you learned. (In your college application essays, especially personal statements like the Common App essay, you also recount something that happened to you–like telling a real-life story–and then you explain what it meant to you. See how they are similar?)
One writing tip to keep your Coronavirus diary balanced between what happened and what it meant to you is to shift back and forth. If you write a few sentences or paragraph about something that happened and those details, follow up with how you felt about it–especially your feelings and what you learned about yourself, others and the world. Then describe something else that happened, and reflect. Back and forth. Something happened => what it meant to you => something happened => what it meant to you….This writing technique (sometimes called the Ladder of Abstraction) is how you add depth–another skill you can use to power your college application essays.
When you tell about your day, and the specifics of something that happened, make sure to includes tons of details. Name the movies you watched, the brand of cereal you ate, the friends you talked with, the words your dad used, the way your room looked, etc. These type of details will brighten your story and years down the road, you will laugh or even cry at many of them since you and your life will change.
A few more tips: Write like you talk. Don’t try to make your coronavirus diary sound like an English paper. You can use slang, or even foul language, if that’s how you talk. The important thing is that you will be capturing your authentic narrative “voice,” which is exactly what you want to use when writing your college application essay.
Also, stick to the past tense, even though you are writing about things that just happened. They are still in the past, and it reads better. Try to use the grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all that you know, so that it’s as readable as possible, but don’t sweat the them. Most important, you want to be able to read your diary later.
Use mainly first person. “I” “Me” “We” “Us”….
These are just some ideas on how to capture your experiences and feelings and observations about what’s going on right now with you. But there are NO RULES. This Coronavirus diary is yours, and your alone.
Some Prompts to Get You Going
The dreaded blank page. Yikes!! How do you start when this CV has been going on for a while and you have already been homebound for a week or more? Try something like this:
Start with your first impressions of the pandemic. How did you first hear about it? Where were you? What did you think? What went through your mind? How did you feel? This will help you start at the beginning of this CV phase of your life, and you can go from there until you bring it up to today.
“I’m not sure the exact moment I first heard about the Coronavirus, but I remember seeing a video on Facebook about someone in China……”
Share some details about other things you remember early on learning about it, from your friends, from social media, from your parents, etc. You can keep this short, or write about it over the next couple entries and days. Your call. At some point, you will start simply writing about what happened THAT DAY (or yestserday).
Talk about the first day you learned school was closed. Include how you felt. Scared? Disappointed? Angry? Depressed? Anxious? Share what your first day home was like. It will be interesting to see how that changes over the coming weeks, and possibly months. Did you start a routine? What did your parents tell you about what was happening and what to expect?
Still not sure what to write about? Just think back over your day. Did anything happen that made you laugh? Write about that moment. Did anything happen that upset you? Write about that moment. Did someone else do something weird or unexpected? Write about that. Just pick a small incident or conversation or moment, and simply tell what happened. If it comes to mind, it’s memorable to you and worth jotting down the details. Then, Boom. You have a Coronavirus diary entry.
REMEMBER: What you choose to write about does not need to be super exciting, life-changing, shocking or momentous to have value. It’s actually the everyday and ordinary moments and interactions that are the most meaningful since they are the most real to YOU. Trust what you cared about, and record it. If you have some more dramatic incidents, of course, record those as well!
Also, you don’t have to tie everything you write about directly to this Coronavirus. Everything that happens to you now IS related on some level because it is happening now during this pandemic. Simply focus on writing about how your life is now.
If things in your life are bad, all the more reason to write down what’s going on in your Coronavirus diary. Getting out what’s happening and especially how you feel about it can help you get through this. This won’t necessarily fix things, but it will help you handle them and can be helpful since you can get out your fears, worries, anger, whatever.
Hopefully, this will get you launched on your Coronavirus diary. You will never regret it, and again, you couldn’t have a better exercise to prepare for writing a killer personal statement for your college application essays. Big bonus!
We are in the middle of very weird and terrifying times. From reports I’ve read, we could return to some type of new normal within a matter of months. And then, looking back, this will be one of those bizarre nightmare experiences that you endured and will never forget. Your grandparents and parents had watershed times like the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, 911 and the 2008 Crash. This is yours, happening now. If you have a written record of how YOU handled it in your Coronavirus diary, you will value that for the rest of your life.
So get a notebook, jot down the day and date, and write something. Anything. Then put it down. Repeat.
I plan to write some follow-up posts with more tips and prompts for keeping your diary/journal going. So stay tuned!
Know the Main Point You Want to Make
About Yourself In Your Essay!
I don’t know why I haven’t written about this before. It’s soooooo important to writing a college application essay that will give you that edge in landing your dream school acceptance.
To start off, if you don’t know the Main Point of your college application essay, you are pretty much sunk right off the bat.
In my popular writing guide, Escape Essay Hell, I’m pretty sure I mentioned this somewhere in my step-by-step process. But I probably should have hammered this topic more.
If you are writing a personal statement style essay for say, The Common Application, or other college applications, the piece needs to be all about you.
So, as in all good writing, you can’t really begin until you have a clear idea of what you want to say. In this case, what you want to say about yourself.
Finding THE MAIN POINT YOU ARE GOING TO SAY ABOUT YOURSELF in your college application essay is similar, actually almost identical, to making a thesis statement.
Ugh. I know. I never liked having to deal with those. They make you think, and also make some hard decisions.
Why? Because you have to boil down your message to its essence. And that ain’t easy.
When you write a personal statement essay, you need to DECIDE what the main thing is you want to say. About yourself.
Trouble is, you can’t say everything. That would take a book.
So you must pick. Narrow it down. Frame it up. Decide on ONE main thing you want to tell these schools about yourself. ONE!
No, you can’t just say how great you are. Or, pick me, pick me, I’m super smart, and a hard worker and also play a mean sax. And did I mention I have 40,000 hours of community service?
Instead, you want to find ONE thing about yourself that you can write about that will help your target colleges and universities:
Differentiate you from the other applicants
Find you likable
See that you are interesting
Get a sense of your “intellectual vitality,” which mainly means you enjoy learning and thinking
Remember you when they are making their cuts
This is where you want to start the brainstorming process to try to identify topics that you can use to show this ONE MAIN POINT about yourself to these schools.
Here are some topics students wrote about in the sample essays in my collection, Heavenly Essays: An obsession with junk collecting. Messing up while waiting tables. Coming from an in vitro egg. Road trip in Winnebago with parents. Getting stuck in a tree. Swallowing a goldfish. Having three older bossy sisters. Smiling too much.
Great topics! However, before these students could write about these ideas, they had to first know…you got it…THE MAIN POINT THEY WANTED TO MAKE ABOUT THEMSELVES in their essays.
Because these essays were not about these topics. They were about these students. And your essay needs to be about you.
When working one-on-one with students, I usually start by having them identify a short list of their defining qualities or characteristics. Then we pick one, and we use that to decide the ONE MAIN POINT they will write about themselves in their essay.
I don’t know where you are at in the brainstorming or writing process. But see if this helps you identify your MAIN POINT:
Can you write: “I am the type of girl or guy who is _______________________ and it matters because ______________________.” ?
Try to fill in that first blank with one specific description of yourself, such as a defining quality or characteristic. The second blank will help you identify what you value and/or what you learned.
This is how you pick or decide what part of you you are going to showcase in your essay. This will give it focus and allow you to write about yourself without needing an entire book.
Remember, you are going to write about only one part of yourself.
Once you have a clear idea of your MAIN POINT, everything you have to say in your essay will relate, somehow, to this point. Everything you say will support this point, offer examples (little stories of you in action) of this point, explore and explain this point.
Check out this post, How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps, to learn how to put together a narrative style personal statement essay that will cover all these goals. And of course, include your main point. You might not need to overtly state your main point, as with a thesis statement, but it will be in there somewhere.
If you want more help, my book, Escape Essay Hell, lays this all out step by step in more detail.
Remember, the MAIN POINT of these college application essays is to help you stand out among the competition. And you can’t stand out unless you first know the MAIN POINT about yourself that will help you do this best.
As a professional writing coach, I help students, parents, counselors, teachers and others from around the world on these dreaded essays!
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