Discipline is an often misunderstood concept. (Though this may surprise you, at no other time in my life did I see discipline misrepresented more than during my four years at Harvard.) Often met with a groan from teenagers and adults alike, discipline tends to signify work, effort, and overall unhappiness. Discipline, however, can also mean fun and relaxation if carried out correctly. For instance, consider the following example of a hard-working yet undisciplined student:
Our student sits down to work on a term paper that she knows should require between two and three hours of focused effort. Rather than focusing on the task at hand, she grasps at anything to distract herself: chatting online with friends, browsing the web, even cleaning her room. While this multitasking might yield a robust Facebook profile and a cleaner room, it also extends her writing time to five hours instead of three.
Furthermore, this tendency to multitask afflicts our well-intentioned scholar even when she’s not working. Just as her leisure infringed upon her work, her work always seems to creep into mind during ordinary times of relaxation and fun. As a result, she is in a constant state of worry about the work looming overhead.
“The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.” -Stephen King
College applications are an opportunity to take honest stock of yourself, to reflect honestly on what you have done as an indicator of what you will do. This book will help you do exactly that—but first, you have to agree to help yourself. And the best way to do that is to make a concerted effort to write something every day. Even if it’s a fifteen-minute free write, you need to keep your words flowing.
If your digestive organs process the energy and waste from the food you consume and your lungs do the same with air, then the same can be said with respect to how you brain processes the language of life. Not only will abundant writing help you get into college, it will also prove an outlet for any stresses, ideas, or burdens you accumulate during your daily life. Perhaps the habit will even extend beyond these few months into the rest of your life.
Socrates once said, “Know thyself and thy high school guidance counselor” (note: this is not an exact quote). The point is: though your guidance counselor will see your transcript, brag sheet, and other details, they will not know much more about you than what you choose to share in private conversation. So we suggest getting to know your counselor and vice versa. The best way to make that happen is with honest to goodness conversation about your life.
If you are a ninth grader, you should start visiting your guidance/college counselor now. One meeting each semester should suffice to begin developing a relationship. If you are a tenth grader, you ought to pick up the pace with three to four visits a year. An eleventh grader? No less than four visits per year. If you are a senior and you still can’t recognize your counselor in the hallway, then you’ve got your work cut out for you and should meet no less than three times this fall.
In short, your counselor is there to help you, but you must take the initiative to make it happen. Get started early and sustain the effort. It will pay off.
It seems some years ago, before Kid Rock completely lost any semblance of self-respect, he was a guest judge on an MTV lip-syncing contest. Every candidate who came on stage aped the latest Justin Timberlake or old-school Devo, braved national humiliation, and was greeted with Kid Rock’s summary judgment: You sucked. Score that a zero. Never mind the other judges who rained 7s and 8s and 9s on the candidates. Never mind that none of those candidates were that good or that bad.
Then, once, someone got on stage and cranked out his version of “Welcome to the Jungle.” And the unprecedented occurred: Kid Rock gave the guy two thumbs up, some otherwise inaudible and intoxicated encouragement, and a perfect 10.
When the numbers were tallied, it was clear: because the other judges gave minimally different scores, and because Kid Rock essentially withheld his votes, Kid Rock chose the winner.
That’s the Kid Rock Effect: when all else is essentially equal, when everyone has relatively high grades and SAT scores, when everyone has taken on leadership roles in some extracurricular pursuit or another, and when everyone is evaluated in their personal context, what do colleges look at next? What determines admission decisions when your Harvard still has several thousand viable candidates?
The answer is the essay.
Believe us, because we’ve been doing this long enough to know: everything else gets you to this point. Your grades, your SATs—they tell an admissions officer if you are among the applicants who can do the level of work demanded by their school. Your extracurriculars indicate if you are a leader. But it’s your essay that demonstrates what drives you to do what you do and thus impacts, above all else, your chances for admission.
The good news is that, unlike every other part of your application, the essay is the one major component of the application over which you have total control. And by total control, we mean total, absolute, utter control. You can write on just about any topic, and virtually in any voice so long as—and this is the most important thing you’re going to hear about the essay—so long as it honestly reflects you, or something about you.
Thanks to your own introspective work, your conversations with people you trust, your college visits, and your research on websites like unigo.com and Naviance, you should have a good idea of a chunk of schools at which you would be comfortable spending four years. That is, the following list should include the accumulated awareness of your personal preferences and school priorities that we have cultivated together.
Please take a moment, open Word or TextEdit, and make a list of your top 15 schools.
Done that? Great! Now, if you’re like most, you probably have more than fifteen schools on your radar screen. So do take a second look to make sure these fifteen are the schools most representative of your priorities, preferences, and goals.
Each college and university is looking for a certain kind of individual; they all have mottoes and creeds, and the admissions officer—who is looking to admit each and every one of you, by the way—is on the prowl through the giant stack of applications (the stack the size of three King James Bibles, remember) for young people who fit their particular one. Getting into Amherst does not ensure getting into Williams. A rejection letter from UT Austin does not mean a rejection letter from UVA.
Here’s a list of some things—books, periodicals, essays, and so on—that we recommend reading:
Stuff you can find online
Montaigne, a sixteenth century Frenchman, is generally credited as the inventor of the essay. It is safe to assume he knew a few things about writing.
The staff writers at the Times are some of the best journalists in the entire world.
Ditto for these magazines. Read anything in them that intrigues you.
Other print resources: