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Authenticity in a College Applicant: More Important Than Ever

By Matt Struckmeyer, Laguna Blanca Director of College Counseling

The recent college admissions scandal has proven that it’s more important now than ever for applicants to possess actual skills rather than the appearance of them. This is especially true when it comes to the college essay—the part of the application that gives colleges the best sense of the applicant as a real person, and not just a collection of numbers and accolades.

At Laguna Blanca School, I’ve always valued the true learning and authenticity that should reside at the core of the admissions process. Helping students to acquire the skill and, more importantly, the confidence to write about themselves in the first person, empowers them to take risks and show the flair that sets dynamic applicants apart.

But lately I’ve begun a new approach. An approach that goes even further in this direction—by helping students to write their first college essays in ninth grade. The Common Application offers seven distinct prompts, and so my goal is to have every Laguna student write responses to all seven prompts by the time they return to campus for their senior year.

Seven essays? I can hear the gasps already. Isn’t it hard enough to produce just one? What about the pressure on students so young? Well, actually that’s the issue—it is extremely hard to write even a single essay if the writer has little sense of how to proceed. What’s more, by waiting until the last minute—the summer or fall of the senior year—students place themselves under great pressure to perform, limiting the chances that they will be effective. By starting sooner, thereby lowering the stakes, students feel less pressure and much more free to approach this exercise in the spirit of fun.

The idea is analogous to that of a painter or a sculptor. Do you think Michelangelo carved one of his masterpieces without dozens of prior attempts, including many false starts? I doubt it. And yet, oddly enough, many students seem to think they can whip up a great essay with virtually no practice or with the help of a “paint-by-numbers” guidebook. Sadly, when students realize how truly hard it is, some might be tempted to use outside help. Under the new intense scrutiny, students must be able to show that their writing is exclusively their own.

Did I suggest that writing a college essay could be fun? Definitely. Far too many students think their essay must be serious to be taken seriously. This approach often backfires, with students producing boring essays that give no hint of the joy, levity, and unique insight which actually exists in their day-to-day lives.

This is why I require students to take a crack at all seven prompts, several of which invite a lighter-hearted approach. Best of all, when it comes time to actually choose just one essay to submit on their Common App, students who follow this method will have a choice, unlike those who write only one. If that one essay takes a wrong approach, many young authors will hesitate to start over with deadlines looming.

If you’re interested in getting a jump start on your college essay, register for Laguna Blanca’s summer writing workshop (August 5-9), which Matt Struckmeyer designed to create a space for students to begin the creative process of drafting their college essay early. You will develop a confident voice and uncover your authentic story, reflecting your values and life experiences. Click here to learn more about the college essay workshop. Space is limited; email mstruckmeyer@lagunablanca.org  to register now.