Change the question. Turn the Table.

“We thought we had all the answers/It was the questions we had wrong” U2 11 O’clock Tick Tock

My 4-year old daughter is very shy, but quite cute. I know I’m biased but honestly, she’s pretty darn cute. When we go out to eat or play on the playground, people always ask how she’s doing or say they like her dress. She hates it. She buries her face in my thigh and won’t turn around until they leave.

I keep telling her to simply answer quickly, and then ask the same question in return. If they ask how her day is going, just ask that right back. Turn the table. When she’s done that, it’s worked well—and frankly we’ve learned a lot and heard some interesting responses to “Where did you get that dress,” or “what did you have for breakfast?”

How does this relate to college admission? Because fundamentally we learn through curiosity and listening, thus my advice to you is to keep asking questions. Just be sure they’re the right ones.

If you are a junior or a senior in high school, the six words you likely dread hearing are: “Where are you going to college?” I’m sure “I am breaking up with you” is unwelcome as well, but let’s stick with college advice for today. The simple question of “where are you going” brings up anxiety and uncertainty around where to apply and what you really want to study. Not to mention the concern of not getting into a particular school. Fielding these questions from friends is tolerable, but when you’re asked the same question by extended family at every holiday dinner, it can become….well… annoying.

So instead of prerecording a response on your phone or faking a coughing fit to leave the room when asked “where,” I suggest you start by first asking yourself, “why am I going to college?” Unfortunately, too few students ask and answer this question. And if you go to a college preparatory school or are in a college prep curriculum, it’s rarely asked, because going to college is a foregone conclusion. But I believe answering “why” first is critical because it forces you to answer other questions: Why should I bother spending the time and money? What do I want the experience to look like? What do I hope to happen after I graduate?

Why will then lead you to where. “I’m looking at this university because they offer this major, or because I can build a strong network there, or the setting makes it easy for me to do xyz while on campus.” Listen, I don’t mean to say that by answering “why” you won’t still be annoyed when crazy Uncle Tony asks “where” four times during Thanksgiving dinner, but answering with your “why” provides a way for you to change and improve the conversation.

So when he asks you “where,” give him your “why” and then lead into your thoughtful “wheres.” Then, as I tell my daughter, turn the table. Ask him where he went and why. And looking back if he’d make the same choice now knowing what he does at this point. Then you can go back to eating your dinner and just listen and learn.

Let it go!

I have little kids, ages 7 and almost 5. This essentially means that, in attempting to raise them, I say the same things a lot, eat the same things a lot, and watch the same things a lot. It means other things too (like leg hugs) but we’ll just focus on the routine, repetitive nature of young humans.

Not unlike a lot of kids, mine love Disney. I think my current movie-viewing count is approximately three gazillion and my song-listening count is double that. Some of these Disney characters, lines, and themes are now forever emblazoned in my mind. They say when you learn another language you start dreaming in it. My wife recently heard me muttering something about a witch and a poison apple, so it seems I am now fluent in Disney.

Over the last year or so, Frozen has been ubiquitous. Interestingly, as Early Action and Early Decision deadlines approach, I think this movie has a lot to say about the admission process.

As you are probably aware, Elsa, the newly crowned queen, flees Arendelle in an attempt to begin a new, freer life for herself. She sings her passionate and cathartic song, “Let It Go,” as she creates an incredibly majestic ice paradise on the North Mountain.

When it comes to writing your college essays this year, I hope you will remember that scene and phrase.

You will hear supposed experts tell you to “be yourself” as you write. I think that is well-intentioned but dreadfully vague advice. To be more specific: Admission counselors want to hear YOUR voice and understand YOUR background.

All her life Elsa had been controlled and suppressed, and it was not until she left Arendelle that she could truly create something unique and beautiful. (Granted [spoiler alert!], she created an even greater masterpiece when she came back later and saved her kingdom and sister, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

You should absolutely ask others for their opinions and editing suggestions but don’t let them steal the power of YOUR story. Neither course choice nor course performance nor test scores nor extracurricular activities (that’s a lot of nors, I realize) convey you as an individual. Those details and attributes may trace a silhouette, but it’s your essay that colors in the full picture of how you are unique from the thousands of other applicants. Since very few schools interview students, think of your essay as an opportunity for the admission reader to really HEAR YOU.

The other lesson we can learn from Elsa about writing college essays is in her song “Let It Go.”

On the back end of the applications, we can see what percentage a student has completed. So when you finish detailing your extracurricular activities and biographical information,  you may be 70 percent or more complete. But year in and year out, applications will sit at 90 percent or so for weeks leading up to a deadline.

My guess is, the angst and uncertainty revealed by this incomplete status emanate from the fact that the essay is the last thing students can control. Your grades are all but set, your testing and scores are likely done, and you either did or did not join that club or play that sport in your sophomore year. But the essay … ahhh, this you can still hold, continue to massage … and perhaps it’s the magic bullet that will tip the scales.

But the truth is the essay alone will not be what gets you in or keeps you out of a school.

So, here is my strong and earnest advice: Choose a topic you care about, draft, write, edit, ask for feedback, refine — and then “Let It Go.”