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High School Seniors Confront the College Essay

Josh Stephens
It is shortly after Labor Day when many people first confront their past. Who am I? What do I stand for? What am I doing with my life? Surprisingly, these questions do not belong exclusively to middle age. In fact, they will careen through the minds of high school seniors as they prepare their college applications, which start coming due Nov. 1.

These questions can pose particular challenges for sons and daughters of Brentwood. Students at Archer, Brentwood, Milken, and University, and all the other schools to which Brentwood residents commute, are competing for spots in highly selective colleges. And rightfully so.

Yet, many students with whom I work worry that the relative comfort in which they have grown up renders them utterly uninteresting to colleges. While riveting life stories often do lead to arresting application essays, I assure them that their essays need not read like Dickens novels. With some effort and thought, privileged students can stand out, especially among the thousands of applicants from similarly placid environments.

(Meanwhile, students from hardscrabble backgrounds should not shy away from applying to selective schools, which value diversity and often offer generous financial aid.)

Though application essays present limitless options, a few do’s and don’ts can separate the great from the good, and the decent from the catastrophic.

Before you start writing, consider your audience. Don’t assume that the things that delight you, and your friends, parents, and teachers will have the same effect on a detached, critical reader. You have to explain yourself, and you have to be impressive without bragging. Do not tout your “leadership,†“passion,†or “humor.†If those virtues apply to you, then explain what you did to cultivate them.

While it’s best to leave the autobiographies to people who have lived a little, every teenager has done something impressive, amusing, or challenging. If you’re going to write about yourself, find a small anecdote that is truly unusual or insightful. You need only one home run to make the highlight reel.

With that said, the best essays are usually about something—and not necessarily about the author. As a regular Westside kid, you might not yet have fought in a civil war, split an atom, or shattered a gender stereotype. And yet, you can hitch yourself to an Orwell, an Oppenheimer, or a Woolfe and explain how their ideas have influenced you. Lest you think that such an academic approach doesn’t reveal “you,†don’t worry. What you think is who you are. In fact, it’s the part that colleges care about most.

One of the best students I ever worked with wrote her personal statement about Moby Dick. She got into several highly selective schools. This was after an equally selective school had rejected her in the early round. For that application, she wrote about her horse.

Speaking of expensive hobbies, be wary of stories about travel. Travel for community service or scholarship can leap off the page. Tourism does not.

Similarly, great essays about sports are about as rare as empty parking spaces at Whole Foods. Unless you have a truly unusual story or little else to write about, avoid them.

Los Angeles, bless its heart, has developed a culture of open-ness. Kids and adults alike talk about their therapists, their Adderall, and even their rehab. Sharing can be fine among trusted friends—but over-sharing, among the wrong people, can be devastating.

Otherwise, take advantage of your hometown. Brentwood is but one enclave in one of the most fascinating cities in the world. You’re within a short drive of an astounding array of ways to educate yourself, entertain yourself, and engage with the world. (Clients often ask about the topic of my college essay: the 1992 L.A. Riots.)

Finally, a word about parents: let them encourage you, and let them discuss essay topics with you. But, when you write, be your own person, develop your own ideas, and think about all the reasons why, when you finally leave the life they have built for you in Brentwood, you’ll be an incredible scholar, roommate, and friend.

A journalist and college counselor, Josh Stephens graduated from Brentwood School and taught at the Archer School. He can be reached at Josh@stephenscollegecounseling.com.

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