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Monday, September 28, 2015
Overstating Charity in Admissions Essays
Every time this comes up, I cringe a little. Then I pad lightly around my critique, taking great care not to be outright cruel. It's hard to hand a 17-year-old student a hard dose of reality. Especially when the college admissions process is already so stressful. By the time students are tackling the admission essay, they're nearly tapped out.
Still, I feel the need to warn them. I'll state it here, to no one in particular. You did not actually save the world. The children living in the impoverished [insert name of poor foreign country] where you spent a week as a volunteer are not permanently moved by your charity. You don't need to promise to make the world a better place.
Does it sound a little mean?
Obviously, I soften it. But here's why sincerity matters. First of all, your reader can recognize when you're trying to pad your application. Secondly, the real point of the admissions essay is introspection. If you aren't able to really place your volunteer work in context, you may not have learned that much from the experience.
Did the poor children you worked with benefit from your involvement? Perhaps. Was your impact upon their lives far-reaching? Maybe. Yet the real life lesson here was probably your own. Most likely, working with "disadvantaged" people of any sort forced you to check your own privilege. Maybe that felt uncomfortable. Maybe it was easier to cast yourself as a hero.
A truly reflective essay shares the experience, but doesn't overstate its importance. I get it-some students aren't necessarily boasting. They really feel that they've done some good for the world, and for that, they should be commended. They just need to be careful that their altruism doesn't come across as self-aggrandizement.
So I promise to keep coming up with nice ways of telling writers to reevaluate the impact of their charity work. So long as writers promise to be more self-aware.
Your reader will notice.
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