How College Applicants Can Brag (Modestly)

In Cosmo magazine polls of qualities that women most dislike in men, one almost always tops the list: arrogance. As with romance, so with just about every other type of relationship. Until you get to be Donald Trump - or you find yourself in a shouting match with Donald Trump - arrogance is rarely an asset. Good kids, like other good humans, are generally modest.

Say you finish third in the regional Intel Science Competition. Say you're first chair cello in the countywide youth orchestra. Say you've written a novella. In verse. Say you're class president, basketball team captain, or community service champion. Or maybe you've done some babysitting, earned some merit badges, and run in Relay for Life.

They're all nice assets for your college application and grist for application essays, right? Sure. For unsteady writers, though, they present great opportunities to trip over the line between confidence and arrogance.

So what's an accomplished student to do?

The School Report
Probably the most mysterious element of the college application - so mysterious, in fact, that most applicants don't know it exists - is the school report. Not to be confused with teacher recommendation letters, school reports are usually written by college counselors (or, sometimes, by a school administrator or class dean). These reports aren't as intimate as teacher recs, but they're wider-ranging. They summarize students' academic careers, compare students against the standards of the school, and describe activities that students have participated in. Conveniently, they also highlight students' accomplishments.

The difference between a letter and an essay depends, obviously, on authorship. And authorship matters. Students can, and should, build a case for their virtues. But they cannot assert them. By assert I mean that writers make a subjective claim without actually advancing an argument or providing facts to support the claim. It happens all the time in college essays.

Being self-confident is the opposite of saying you're self-confident; saying you're a leader is the opposite of leadership; declaring oneself to be passionate is not the same thing as writing with passion. Shakespeare had a phrase for these faults: "doth protest too much."

Building A Case
A student who writes that he's the "best" debater in the school comes off as a prig; the "best" hip-hop dancer comes off as too cool for school. Same for student who congratulations herself on winning a class election or for owing her A in history class to her superior critical thinking skills. The counselor who writes the very same things offers an authoritative evaluation, from one adult to another.

A student who has a reasonable idea of what her counselor will write, therefore, has all the freedom in the world to write great application essays. She doesn't need to brag or anxiously highlight herself because someone else is already doing it for her. That leaves her to write about the nuances of her accomplishments. She can describe the process by which the accomplishment arose or analyze the significance of the accomplishment. She can reveal what was going on in her mind and heart when she was conducting the experiment, arguing in mock trial, or planting the community garden. Or she can write about something else entirely.

Of course, students never know exactly what their counselors are going to write. That's one reason, among many, why students should get to know their counselors and help their counselors get to know them. By keeping their (tactful) bragging to the confines of the counselor's office, students can focus on substance in their applications and leave the superlatives to the counselor.

(I am referring to school counselors. Independent college counselors - who also can play a crucial role in students' application processes - rarely communicate with colleges and never write recommendation letters.)

Keeping Students Honest
School reports serve another crucial purpose: they keep students honest. One-hundred percent of high school students have drafted an activity list and thought about how easy it would be to embellish their extracurriculars. Why not add another 50 community service hours, move up a chair in the orchestra, or land the leading role in Cats?

Some applicants succumb to these temptations. They're the ones who get rejected without a moment's thought. If there are discrepancies between a student's self-reported extracurriculars and the ones that a counselor discusses - glowingly or otherwise - in a school report, you can imagine what's going to happen.

Honesty, then, is always the best policy. Modesty comes a close second.

For help brainstorming and preparing for application essays, here are a few past blogs:

College Essay Cliches
Common App Overhauls Essay Prompts
How College Applicants Can Go Beyond 'Show Don't Tell'

To inquire about essay guidance, please email me.