I have read a lot of student’s essays that I neither outlined nor edited. At my old counseling job, we had something called “final review,” where editors would get a massive stack of other editor’s students’ work and we would go through them to provide a final edit. I never liked this process because I quickly found my options to be “do nothing” or “freak out and leave like 40 comments days before submission.” I work on my own now for a reason.
I probably read through 400 essays in my time there. I would say about 75 were terrible, 300 were fine, 25 were pretty good, and 5-10 were magnificent. Whenever I hear from knowers of things like williamthereader, it seems like that breakdown is about par for the course. But here’s the weird thing; of all 400 essays, there’s precisely one I still think about. The actual writing and story structure were deep in the “fine” range, and I certainly didn’t cry. But after I read it, I went, “Huh. Neat.” And I still think about her and her essay to this day.
The girl had a badass hobby. She AQUASCAPED:
The essay explained how she loved nature and would make Aquascapes and leave notes near them for others to find. She’s the Aquascape girl to me, and I guarantee she is to a bunch of admissions offices that read that essay.
This is probably fit for its own post, but I’m coming to see a critical flaw that so many students succumb to in the quest to get into great schools. I’m still workshopping a dumb name for it, but basically, the problem is that for the first 17 years of your life, there has been an objectively “correct” way to build a successful college application profile. You study hard for your tests, take the right courses, join clubs, start non-profits of questionable validity, intern at companies with names I can’t spell, and do everything else like it’s supposed to be done.
But the problem comes when every student follows that same gameplan. That’s at the core of how and why “perfect” applicants don’t get in where they want. They’re perfect, but in the same way too many other applicants are perfect. It’s what I see over and over on Chance Me posts: A never-ending shopping list of awards and positions and bells and whistles, and it just looks like stuff. Granted, some of the stuff is impressive enough that I get it, but mostly it just makes my eyes glaze over. There’s no narrative there. No story. Just a ton of checked boxes.
One of my very first college theories was that something you wanted to do with your application was to become the “X kid.” If you don’t know, the way college admissions usually work is around ten people each individually read dozens of applications, take notes, and then all meet to go over everyone and vote. The original person who read your profile is kind of like your lawyer in that they present their case for you and (hopefully) why you should be allowed in. These meetings go on all day, and by 4:45, a team may be talking about you as the 100th+ student that day. With that kind of backlog, it’s easy to become lost in the shuffle.
My goal with every student is to have something about them that makes their officer immediately remember them once they pull their file out as the 23rd student they’re presenting that day.
“Oh! This is Kimmy! She does this art thing with water! I Googled it and it’s real!”
Kimmy succeeded. She was the water art girl.
There is no “service-learning hero” kids or “resilient injury recovered athlete” kids. There can’t be; every school gets too many essays on those topics for anyone to claim that crown. Even if the essay is “wonderfully written,” it still falls into the pile and is forgotten.
There also aren’t too many “brilliant scientist” or “world-class musician” kids, either. That’s because to qualify as such, you have to be the real deal. 1% of 1% of 1% kind of talented. I’m not that good at anything. By definition, most students won’t be, either.
So what do we do about this?
We pick up a hobby! A weird one! And we get weirdly good at it.
My hobby is handwriting analysis. Essentially all someone needs to do is write five sentences on unlined paper about anything they want and then sign their name at the bottom. Then I can analyze the way you write and tell you about your personality via it. I will do it for the first two people who submit pictures in this thread. You can just sign your first name if you want. Don’t need to be doxing people.
I started it as a way to impress girls in college and quickly discovered I had a knack for it. I started doing it at parties, and then my school’s social events. By my senior year, I was working part-time at weddings and birthdays analyzing handwriting for tipsy aunts. Today, it’s the first thing I do with every student that I meet to work with. Fun little ice breaker. It would make a cool essay. I would be the “handwriting kid”.
So that’s my advice to you: pick up a hobby that will one day be fodder for an awesome essay topic that will make you different than every other student applying to that school. I only have three requirements:
1. It has to be weird enough that it is highly unlikely that more than, say, 100 other students in America will write about the same thing. I don’t think there are that many Aquascaping stories out there. As a general rule, if you know of anyone at your school who does the same thing, it’s not weird enough.
2. It should be something you can and do get good at, preferably to the point that there is a time in which you use your talent for a greater cause or objective result.
3. It should be something you like and want to do.
Optional: Include your friends! You don’t have to be some lone wolf out in your basement. Come up with some ideas with friends or rally a club to take on a big project together.
The one idea I always recommend that none of my students ever run with is to start a podcast with a friend about something. Produce weekly episodes and start a listener base at your school. Promote it online with its own website and build a following. Get sponsored by Zip Recruiter: you’re golden.
I also am dying to get a musician kid to pick up a juggling/music playing routine. Imagine you’re Mr. Harvard, and some kid writes about how he can play Maple Leaf Rag on the piano while also juggling three tennis balls. Mr. Harvard clicks that Youtube link.
This advice is probably best served at current sophomores who will be applying to schools 16ish months from now. But even for all the upcoming seniors, you still have 5-8 months to start and do something. You can be in the process of doing something while writing about it. Just have it done before you submit.
I’m aware that “think of an insane hobby that you will also want to do” is a tough ask. An easier way to build this path is to figure out something you already like to do and go in deep on it. One of my favorite students liked to bake. She would make a new type of pudding every day. That was pretty good, but I wanted an arc. I had her start writing down her different pudding recipes every day in a book. After six months, she had enough written down to publish together as a cookbook. She was the pudding girl.
I had another student who loved baseball. Since he was a kid, he would leave right after school three days a week to see the SF Giants play. He loved the games, but what he enjoyed most was catching batting practice. This kid had a custom net-glove…thing he would use to pick up balls hit into the outfield. He signed each one with the player and date and kept them in a case in his room. I worked with him to get some of his balls signed by the players who hit them so they could then be auctioned off for the charity event he was involved with. He only got a couple back, but one was from a former Giants legend, and it became a top bided item. He was the baseball boy.
(No, of course Barry Bonds didn’t respond. We didn’t even bother asking Jeff Kent).
These were both students I lucked into. They came pre-packaged with neat hobbies, and all I had to do was guide them to form their experience into a narrative that could then become an essay. That’s all you’re doing; you are building a future essay/EC topic with actions you make now. The game plan is simple:
- Take up Hobby
- Get good at hobby
- Utilize hobby in a way that provides a big flashy fulfilling ending to your essay.
That flashy ending is crucial because otherwise, the essay lacks a narrative structure. There needs to be a payoff to you making all those pigeon sculptures out of soap. The most obvious payoffs are producing a physical product people can and do buy, being featured somewhere, or utilizing your talent to raise money for charity somehow. Let’s see if anyone reading this tries it, and then I’ll write an update a few months from now on ways to escalate.
I’m not calling this hobby idea some magic bullet or genius idea. But what I do think it is is a better use of your limited time and energy than whatever else you think you “should” be doing. Instead of having two internships, have one internship and spend five hours a week building an exotic ant colony or something. You be the officer: Kid who worked at two different labs or kid who worked at one lab but also owns 50,000 ants?
If you wanna get really flashy, you can even double up with the ideas in this post.
I love synergy in my applications. I’ll write more about that later (every time I write one of these things, I end up with three more topics I want to do…) But if you can combine your academic passion/future major into a hobby, that’s cash money, dog. If you’re an engineer, start building stuff for fun. I once had a student who built a beautiful, functional model Ferris Wheel. Could I work with him now, I would have had him build one Ferris Wheel every week for four months. Every week it would be out of a different material. Then we’de take photos and raffle some off and eventually make one out of wood students could ride. God, that would have killed. I’ll get you next time, MIT.
Maybe here’s another way to think about it: what’s something you’ve always wanted to do but don’t because of of…reasons? Either you’re not sure you can or because “it’s not something someone my age should be able to do.” The fact that you feel that way means that doing it anyway will be most impressive of all.
For me, back in 2009, that was writing for the website Cracked.com. I eventually did get published there in 2011, but by then, I was already in college. I could have done it at 17 and not 19; I just needed someone to tell me I could, and I should. I’m that person for all of you right now. Go do it.
Hell, let’s have some fun with it. For any student who is currently a sophomore and will be a junior this fall, start and continue a hobby for one calendar year. On May 15th, 2021, PM or Email me a link to proof of your hobby as well as an explanation of how the year went. I like Youtube videos. The SICKEST HOBBY WITH SICKEST PROOF I will take on for the entire 2021 fall essay season: free of charge.
Want more? Check out my FREE strategy guide on the “Why College” essay.
Like this? You might also like:
You Don’t Have to be Spiky, but Please Don’t be Well-rounded
How to Get Noticed and Stand Out During the College Admissions Process: Have a Weird Hobby
Why you Shouldn’t Start a Non-Profit (And What You Should Do Instead)
The One Key Difference Between My Students Who Did and Did Not Get Into T20 Schools