College Smart Advising

My Thoughts on College Applications


All or Nothing


When I am helping students revise essays, one of the first projects is to conduct a search for the word “always”. Always usually appears in sentences like, “I have always wanted to be a pediatric oncologist.” and “I have always loved behavioral economics.” Really? You wanted to be a pediatric oncologist when you were five? The rest of us wanted to be firefighters, or teachers, or Mulan. You must have been a fun sight to see when you trick-or-treated in your oncologist costume.

I understand the appeal in making these “always” claims in your college application essays. You want to sound like you have a plan - that you have everything mapped out for your future. But, when you overstate your case and operate in absolutes, you end up undermining the point you are trying to make. By claiming you have everything figured out, you lose credibility as a writer and waste the good will of your reader. Do you really want to begin your Personal Statement with an assertion that is, at best, inaccurate (and, at worst, untrue)?

The first law of personal statements is: “Show, Don’t Tell.” Always statements are one of the worst forms of telling because “always”, and its fraternal twin, “never”, are symptoms of “all or nothing” thinking, a cognitive disorder that can lead to unrealistic expectations. Things are black or white, good or bad, you are either successful or an absolute failure. None of these things are true. The world is always filled with nuances and possibilities.

Instead of telling us what you always wanted, show us why you are inspired to pursue a certain career interest or how you developed a fascination with a specific area of study. Instead of always, embrace the ideas of “currently fascinated by” or “based on my experiences” or “I’d like to learn more about”. And if you did dress up as an oncologist for Halloween, share that experience with us, we’d love to learn more about it in your personal statement (and I’d love to see photos).