The Art of Getting Help (or what I learned from dying my hair)

The Myth of "Au Natural"

I was raised by hippies. I got a great education in folk songs, creativity, and talking through conflicts in Circle Time. But I kind of missed the whole make-up, fashion, hairstyle side of things.

It was a revelation to me to learn (as an adult) that so many people actually change the color or texture of their hair. I had spent years comparing my “as is” look to professionally planned and executed ‘dos.

Once I got wise, I thought, “If others are getting a boost, why shouldn’t I?” And I did. I started slow, with subtle highlights. But my hairdresser was so enthusiastic, and she was the expert, right? Pretty soon, all trace of subtlety was gone, and several bright hues, extreme bleaching, and tinted eyebrows were all vying for attention.  

I looked in the mirror and realized that I didn’t look like me; I looked like my hairdresser’s idea of me. 

OK, I know this seems like an unlikely analogy for applying to college, but in my experience, there are many students who don't get the help they need for one of these bad-hairstyle-like reasons:

  • Some students just don't think of getting help. They look around at their peers who are working on applications and think they have it all under control because they're just “naturally talented.”
  • Some students realize that their peers are getting help, but they don’t know how to find their own help that isn’t really just someone else taking control.

"As Is" and College Applications Don't Mix

The competition for college is too stiff, and the dominance of outside help—whether from a parent, school counselor, or hired professional—has re-calibrated the baseline that colleges are expecting to see.

The question is not whether students should get help with college applications, but what kind of help they should get. [Tweet that!]

How can students find support and guidance without having someone else take over the process?

It’s fantastic that so many high schools are offering ways to close the gap between the old DIY model and the new have-to-get-support model. Schools are now providing college bootcamps, more comprehensive counseling, and access to software that helps students think clearly and coherently about their college and career goals.

These are all important components in helping students start thinking about the college process. But they tend to get students all revved up and excited early on, and then leave them to work independently.

These kinds of help miss a huge piece of the puzzle, the piece that makes the difference between students finishing stand-out applications on time, and hacking together last-minute Frankenstein monsters. What's missing? Clear instructions combined with continued feedback and accountability.

The best kind of help pushes students to do the work themselves but helps them to figure out what that work is.

It prompts them to do some major soul-searching, helping them dig deep and reflect on the experiences they’ve had, the causes they’re passionate about, the challenges and triumphs that have shaped them. 

But it also ensures they are successful by creating a timeline and a practical plan for completing this heady work.

I’ve found that many students start out writing with confidence. They think, “I’m passionate. I know why I want to go to college. I got this.”

Three pages later, they realize they are writing themselves in circles. They’re way past the word limit and they haven’t even put in that amazing conclusion they were planning. Or else they have been staring at the same short paragraph for ages, waiting for inspiration to hit.

Writing About Ourselves is Hard

Even strong writers are stymied by the personal statement because they don’t want to come across as “full of themselves” by talking about their accomplishments. But they don’t want to get lost in the shuffle either. Colleges say, “Be yourself!” but Mom, Dad, the school counselor, and common sense all say that this essay needs to be sophisticated and polished.

What students really need for success on the personal statement is a combination of clear instructions on the one hand, and personalized feedback on the other.  

They need a process that helps them showcase their unique, amazing passions and talents, but that also guides them to create a cogent, refined piece of writing. Someone telling them what or how to write won’t work. But neither will spraying a random, Jackson-Pollock-style explosion of experiences across the page.

The Right Kind of Help

I wanted students to be able to decode what colleges are really asking in those writing prompts, and to follow the edicts of both admissions committees and parents / teachers / counselors: Write in your own voice, but in your own best voice.

So I created Complete College Essay Coaching. Here's what we do in this engaging and intensive one-on-one writing experience:

  • Students get their creative juices flowing with tools designed to bring their stories to the surface, and then to match those stories and experiences to the categories colleges want to hear about.
  • Once they begin to see what they should be writing about, I provide them with a reliable recipe for narrowing the focus and building a structure that will help them frame their thoughts effectively.
  • At every stage, I offer them feedback and ask them to defend their choices so that they don’t commit time and energy to ideas that aren't serving them.
  • With reasonable deadlines and tons of accountability and support, including weekly Office Hours, students stay on schedule and ditch the stress. 

My experience teaching writing is that even the most un-personal essays can be messy for thoughtful students. Bright students often turn their brains inside out and have to take their writing apart before they can put it all together in the way that gets their ideas across.

The personal statement is much, much more difficult. Not just because there is a lot at stake. But because dedicated students really want to put themselves on paper. They don’t want to write what someone else tells them to.

My superpower is hearing how someone's unique and real story can be translated into a narrative with drama, humor, pathos, and all the other elements that make others engage with it.

I work extremely hard to offer my coaching students the best writing structure, tools, advice, and resources while still handing all of the power over to them! The students who have worked with me tell me that they feel they've written their best. They love that their essays are really their own, but that they are also polished and deeply thoughtful. 

This is the sweet spot of getting help—when the real you sines through. That's what I am all about! I'm here to help your amazing story flow! If you're ready to have my expertise and enthusiasm on your side from start to finish, check out Complete College Essay Coaching. Just want to get your feet wet and try out some help? Schedule a Strategic Essay Planning Session.