By Michelle Brafman
This is the time of year when high school seniors and I find each other. I am a college essay coach, and during my first meeting with my students, I deliver the good and bad news about this endeavor.
The bad news is that there are few essay topics college admissions officers have not yet encountered. The fantastic news is that students don’t have to have climbed Mt. Everest or invented the Post-it note to write a stunning personal statement. The best essays showcase an applicant’s voice.
When my students hear their narrative voices pop for the first time, something inside of them shifts. Magic.
Most of time, though, they need a little warming up in order to let loose; they can’t sing through clenched teeth. The biggest culprit of their stress? Metrics! Before we begin, I ask them to jot down their standardized test scores, GPA, and class rank on a piece of paper. This paper I in turn toss into a box.
Metrics do matter, to a point. We measure cups of flour, heartbeats, and math scores for useful purposes. I tell my students, however, that their stats are merely one part of their stories and that presenting themselves authentically, in a college essay and in life, matters. A lot.
I tell them that if they’re obsessing about their ACT scores while they’re drafting their essays, their writing will read like a limp handshake.
I tell them the following:
If you think you are just a number, you are NOT your: SAT score, class rank, or GPA, weighted or unweighted. You are not the number of minutes you played in the volleyball game, the chair you were assigned in the school orchestra, or the tenth dancer who made the poms. You are not a digit on the scale or the number of people who follow you on Instagram.
You are not a number, or are you?
You are the number of times you tried out for the play and didn’t make it, the number of minutes you practice your lines, scales, or free throws. You are the number of buses you must catch to get to school. You are the 55% you scored on your chemistry test and the number of hours you sat with a teacher, friend, or tutor to learn the material. You are the number of nights you babysit or ring up burrito bowls at Chipotle so that you can pay for college.
You are infinity. You transcend numbers.
You are the listener, the mimic, the keeper of the stories. You are the trail you hiked in the dark, terrified, but you did it anyway. You are the cat or dog whisperer. You are the family sous chef, or the cook, because you have to be. You are a dancer because when the music starts, you’ve got to move. You are an excellent friend, except for the time when you weren’t . . . but you learned from your mistake and never did it again. You are the family GPS. You are the reminder to recycle or vote or march or speak out. You are our future, and my God do we need you.
You are the sigh of relief your mother breathes when you offer to pick up your grandmother’s prescription from the CVS or take care of your younger sibling. You are not the captain or the president of the whatever, but you hung posters for your friend who ran and won. You can read a room like a Harry Potter novel. You are the glue who holds your group project together. You are the volunteer job you took to fulfill your SSL hours: the sticky hand of the little boy who needed help opening his juice box, the park that needed a face lift, the homeless person who needed a hot meal. You are your passion for the Caps or Lin-Manuel Miranda or Kendrick Lamar. Or physics. Or Fortnite.
Let the admissions officer see you in your entirety, in your glorious vulnerability and strength.
Let your essay serve as a treatise about who you are. A road map to facing a challenge. A message in a bottle that will wash ashore when you need it most. Remember to open it.
Let yourself see beyond your metrics.
You are you. And that’s more than enough.
Michelle Brafman Michelle Brafman is the author of Washing the Dead and Bertrand Court, both works of fiction. In 2003, she founded Yeah Write, a writing coaching business, and has since been working with teens on their college essays. A PEN/Faulkner Writer in Schools author, she has been invited to more than 150 venues to speak about her work and the creative process
Note from the Editor: This story was originally posted on Your Teen for Parents and reposted here with Michelle’s permission (Thank you!!). For the past fifteen years, Michelle has been teaching creative writing courses and working individually with teens on their essays, including many within the swimming community. For more information about rates or availability, contact: Email