‘Character Development' and the College Applicant

Let us consider one of the most famous personal transformations in all of literature. For a goodly number of years, Prince Hal took up company with rogues and wags, much to the disgrace of the crown. Then one day, upon deciding he’d have enough of the life lessons taught by Fallstaff and the boys, he casts off childish things, assumes the throne, and lives to stiffen the sinews of a nation.

As you apply to college, it’s worth bearing in mind that you are not, unfortunately, Prince Hal. Nor, hopefully, are you Fallstaff. And yet, the two offer lessons for the eager applicant.

Fictional stories rely heavily on what your English teacher has surely referred to as "character development." You can pick any protagonist, from Hal to Huck Finn to Jane Eyre to just about anyone else short of Patrick Bateman, and they will change from the first chapter to the last. They might change their beliefs or their relationships. They might act differently. They might trade bad decisions for good or good for bad. The desire to see these changes play out keeps us engaged as readers.

The approach tends not to work so well in college essays.

Often, students approach essays saying, "I want to show..."

"....show how an experience changed me as a person."

"....reveal my character (or personality)"

".....show what I learned.”

“....what this experience taught me.

"....show how I've grown."

I understand these instincts. Learning and growing are great things. But I submit that they will not lead to strong college essays.

Character development works in fiction for two reasons (among others):

First, even if the narration is in first-person, we know that the author, be it Shakespeare, Twain, or whomever, isn't talking about him- or herself. This means that the character is being portrayed accurately (at least within the confines of the narrative). And it means that the “narrator” thinks the story is worth telling. It also means that the narrator is free to reveal unflattering aspects of the character. Huck humiliates Jim; Hal gets into all sorts of trouble.

Second, as we have already established, you are not the future King of England. We care about Prince Hal's transformation because we know that he's going to become king. He doesn't need to apply for the job. Everything he does, good and bad, is inherently important. In the case of non-regal characters, we care about their development because we find the stories inherently interesting -- not because we are evaluating them as human beings. Keep in mind, “interesting” doesn’t mean “flattering.”

By contrast, a college essay that tries to celebrate personal change runs into two challenges:

First, since you are the author, You are not the most credible judge of your own character. “Transformation essays” result in claims like, “….and I became a more generous/compassionate/humorous person.” Unfortunately, that sounds like bragging (because it is). And you're making unsubstantiated assertions. Sure, you can say you became more compassionate, but that claim is only as meaningful as the proof you offer. And the proof really ought to speak for itself — i.e. in the story that you’re telling in the essay.

Second, the whole idea of personal development relies on your audience understanding both your prior state and your new state. That's a lot to pack into one essay. And the prior state is usually irrelevant. If you "used to" be a certain way and now you're not, why do we care about how you "used to" be? In fact, if you describe a prior state that was less admirable than your "new" state, readers will associate you with the prior state. Any time you say "I realized.." or even, "I learned..." you're implicitly highlighting what you didn't know. If you just aced Calculus BC, why tell us, “In seventh grade I hated math”?

Instead of focusing on the process of personal growth, I encourage applicants to focus on outcomes: Who are you today? What do you know today? What do you believe today? What can you do today? (On a related topic, please see my blog about childhood anecdotes.)

If you've had interesting experiences, you don't need to justify them by explaining how those experiences changed you -- especially if the experiences were recent and the changes uncertain. If you built a rocket and went to Mars, we don't care about how going to Mars changed you -- we care about how you pulled it off and what Mars was like.

Rather than tell us how you learned something, tell us what you know and what you you can do. Don't tell us how learning to cook a blueberry pie changed you. Tell us about the awesome pie you make and how you feel about sharing it with your family. Tell us how the pie changed other people.

If you made a moral realization, tell us the story that led to the realization and then state your convictions and analyze them. But don’t imply that you were previously morally stunted.

If you want to share an opinion about or observation of the world, just share it. Don't tell us what you used to think. If you are concerned about, say, the cholera epidemic in Yemen, don’t tell us that you previously had never heard of Yemen.

For all of these examples, don’t worry about your “personality.” Your deeds and ideas reflect your personality (as does your writing style).

Everyone goes through changes, especially in high school. If applicants focus less on essays that reveal past developments and get excited about the present, something fantastic will happen. Colleges will get a far clearer picture not of the person you used to be but rather of the person you might become in the next four years. If they like that picture, you’re one more step closer to getting in.

And if you are in line to the throne, you get want to mention that too.

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