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essays: no need to freak out

In episode #500 of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, Dr. Ruth Simmons, President of Prairie View A&M University, recounts a time when she questioned an academic requirement at her undergraduate institution. She was not successful at making an immediate change, but the experience taught her “it’s very useful to get to know what’s important to you and what matters.”

As I listen, her words stand still for a moment, even as her interview continues. I think about the brainstorming sessions I have coming up this summer with rising seniors working on their main college essays. I’m going to be asking them a lot of questions, with the goal of discovering what matters to them, their core values, and their motivations. Every conversation will be different, and as a result every essay will be unique. Each story will be an honor to read.

For most students, it’s the first time they will write a lengthy essay in the first person about themselves. They ask, “What should I write about?” and when I reply “you,” they wait for me to say more. I explain they are the star on stage and our goal is to find a backdrop that will best draw attention to their personality, their motivations, and what matters most to them. College admissions representatives want to get to know applicants beyond their accomplishments.

It might take a while to find the best story. There may be a few rewrites and scrapped starts. But writing the college essay reminds students what’s important and what makes them who they are. Armed with that confidence, they enter college prepared to grow—and as Dr. Simmons tells the podcast audience, in college they have "the opportunity to learn, to be better people, to be more aware of the world that they live in.” That’s the value of education.


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