This picture of my son came up earlier this week as a Facebook memory from a few years ago. You might think given the timing it was because he was getting ready for Halloween. Nope. For about a two year period, no matter where we went, he dressed like a superhero. Perhaps we should have tried harder to curb the habit, but in parenting like in life, you have to pick your battles. And this was not a hill I was going to die on.
Want to dress like Spider-Man for our ride to North Carolina? Fine. Going to wear the firefighter helmet and a cape to church? Whatever. So this picture from our local Waffle House was not a one-off occurrence. It was a pattern (and in hindsight an incredibly beautiful one). But the regularity of our visits to WaHo became apparent when a few of the servers started making requests on his next costume. “Bring back Green Lantern!” and “We want The Flash!”
I distinctly remember taking this picture because I was actually wearing a Captain America costume (long story) and because of something one of the cooks asked him over the counter: “Where is Batman?” Without fail, when he’d wear his Robin costume this was the prevalent question. Interestingly, however, nobody ever asked about the Boy Wonder when he was dressed as the Dark Knight.
If you’re a senior reading this just ahead of the looming November 1 deadlines lots of colleges around the country have, I am going to assume it’s because you’re hoping for some pearl of wisdom, rather than merely procrastinating (if it’s the latter, I recommend this instead). In either case you’re most likely finalizing your admission essay or supplemental questions, and since we’ve been reading a lot of these lately, I have a few tips for you.
But First, an Exercise…
Close your eyes. Wait. Hold on. First, I want you to think of the kids in your school who have similar grades and classes to you. Maybe not exactly the same but essentially equivalent difficulty and a comparable GPA. Got a few? Okay. Now, consider those classmates who also have scored relatively the same on their ACT/SAT (those you expect to be within 100 points on the SAT or 2-3 points on the ACT, i.e. statistically insignificant). Now think about those students outside the classroom—keep in mind only those who may not be involved with the exact same sports, clubs, work, etc., but basically have had similar impact and influence outside the classroom (aka extra-curricular activities). My guess is all of you still have 3-4 people you could name— maybe more. Still with me? Good. Close your eyes and think about a college’s applicant pool. 10,000? 20,000? Maybe 30,000 applying? (By the way, you can open your eyes now). For colleges with admit rates under 50% most of the applicants have “good” grades, “good” classes, and are involved outside the classroom too.
On paper you are the same. But you are not the same.
1 – You. Are. Batman! You have a unique story to tell, and we want to hear it in your writing. When an admission counselor reads your essay or short answer responses, they already have a sense of where you are from, your academic background, and even what you’ve chosen to do with your time because they’ve already looked at the rest of your application. But they have not heard you yet. They have a caricature; they have a black and white sketch; they have a shadow; they have Bruce Wayne. Your writing adds color, dimension, and completes the picture. Your essay brings out Batman. Don’t waste it by walking back through what we already know or telling us what makes you the same as so many other applicants.
2 – Batman does not have superpowers. What’s cool about Batman is, unlike most superheroes, he does not have any actual superpowers. Instead he relies on his intelligence, strength, agility, and other skills (plus some super cool gadgets) to fight the forces of evil. I’ve talked to so many students who say they don’t know what to write about because nothing amazing has happened to them. The truth is some of the best essays are about mundane topics or experiences. You don’t have to write about the most dramatic or tragic or exciting event to have a great essay. Your voice, your story, your fit for a school, in fact, comes more from your character than external events. We don’t expect you to be perfect. Often the sanitized, squeaky-clean is boring, safe, and insipid. We want to hear your passions and quirks and different perspectives or dreams. Most memorable essays, like superheroes, balance abilities and skills with humility and vision (X-ray or not).
3 – Be Batman! Remember how I asked you to think of all of those other applicants? Well, now forget them. And definitely don’t worry about who is reading your essay. You stand on your own. You are not defined by or associated with anyone else. You are the caped crusader. All due respect to Robin, you are Batman. Don’t try to be something or someone you are not. Your power is your identity– not an extra, nothing “super” or foreign or imaginary. Be distinct. Be different. Be yourself. Be Batman!
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