This is the week when applying to college gets hard. The first few weeks of senior year are all about basking—basking in the glory of being a senior and Ruling the School, thrilled at the great colleges you’ve discovered that have so much to offer, and totally jazzed knowing you will never take another SAT in your life.
That’s sure the fun part, but now we’re in application mode, and it’s time to do the work that brings the college dream to life. This part isn’t always viewed as fun, especially when you have to fill out lots of application forms that ask for the same thing (there’s an easy solution to that, by the way). Once you’re done writing down your name, address, and high school code for the umpteenth time, you run into the essays, questions designed for the colleges to get to know you.
That should seem like a good time—hey, I finally get to talk about me!—but too many students overthink the essays, and turn them into stilted speeches, not ideas that inspire. Trouble is, once you get stuck on the essays, thinking about them just seems to make things worse, less fresh—less you.
Take a look at this. It’s a clip from the 1943 film Stormy Weather, and the dancers are brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas [dance begins at 1:32]. Dance was hugely popular in the forties, and movies were rich with some of the biggest names in popular dance history—Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Ginger Rogers, and more. After this film came out, the biggest name in popular dance, Fred Astaire, called this performance by the Nicholas Brothers the greatest recorded dance performance in the history of film. Even today, historians make the same claim, Michael Jackson notwithstanding.
What makes this performance so incredible, besides the fact they somehow defy gravity about six gazillion times? What you see here is the first take of the performance. In fact, it’s the only take. They didn’t shoot a second take, and there was no rehearsal beforehand. They got up, danced, and sat down.
This is exactly what your college essays need right now—more you. Get yourself in front of a keyboard, and write down what you want the college to know about you. Don’t worry about how well it answers the question, or how well constructed the sentences are. The colleges want to see you on paper. Do that.
Here’s the part where we have to be a little less like the Nicholas Brothers. Now that you’ve got some of yourself in writing, it’s time to focus, expand, clarify—in other words, fine tune your ideas. It’s easy to see how this can be drudgery. That’s why you print out what you just wrote before you change any of it. What’s on that page is your goal. What do you have to do to make sure that’s clearly stated?
Once you think you’re close, it’s time to show it to someone else. The Nicholas Brothers may not have rehearsed this piece, but this wasn’t the very first day they ever danced. When it comes to writing, you’re still working on that “getting up from doing the splits” thing, so it’s important to get some help before you hurt yourself, or your chances of getting into college. Find an English teacher who knows you, and who gets that this is a personal essay, not a book report, and they will gently guide you to even greater clarity.