From Ming Hsu 美国常春藤教育
速发连环招，智破“蚁”阵 | 升学专家的“闯关秘籍”（上卷）
不管用什么常见方式衡量，James的英语语言能力都相当优秀（托福免考，ACT的“英语”部分和“阅读”部分分别考了34和35分，SAT II “英语文学”考了700分高分，而在这些考试之前他都没做太多准备）。
事实上，近年来的心理学研究证实了所谓“‘美丽的混乱’效应”（the beautiful mess effect）的社会效益，这一点被休斯顿大学教授布芮尼·布朗博士（Dr. Brené Brown）写进了她的畅销书《脆弱的力量》（Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead）中，从而被大众所熟知。
既然James已经找到合适的话题，那么我，作为升学顾问，就只需要协助他将文书写得尽量深刻、细腻，同时保留他的独特口吻（编者：关于这一点，请点击标题，复习“文书季 | 让孩子学会与自己对话——Ming老师的文书指导故事”）。从这个角度看，真实地展现自己不仅是一条正路、也是唯一一条能令申请者脱颖而出的路。
（And all these pretty things）
（And don’t say you don’t notice them）
所以，我会开出这样的“解药”，以便让像James这样的学生从压抑的自我意识中解放出来：这是一种“合剂”，包括多接收鼓舞士气的话语，立下各种阶段性小目标、给需要完成的任务设定最后期限（并严格按照计划行事），加上进行大量有条理的自由写作练习（free writing）和思考实验（thought experiments）。
See, James’ mastery of English was excellent by any conventional measures (for example, he was waived of TOEFL and managed to get a 34 on English and 35 on Reading for the ACT, and a respectable 700 on his SAT II English Lit. test, all without much preparation.) But for some reason, his writing just left much to be desired – perhaps as a direct result of him being steeped in academic writing for too long or his natural proclivity for the convoluted, which to me really just means muddled thinking.
Regardless, although the pieces he produced were consistently grammatical, they were all very dense and tended to be longwinded and unfocused, attempting to juggle multiple thematic threads at once – ambitious and commendable, but also highly reader-unfriendly – a cardinal sin for the Personal Statement, at least in the US context (the UK variety on the other hand is different enough to warrant a distinct genre and possibly a separate discussion in and of itself).
To help James settle on a topic for his CommonApp main essay, I here have a roster of names to give thanks to for contributing ideas and time, especially Anya – our in-house writing guru and trusted literary consigliere (and an internationally ranked chess grandmaster no less – a sure antidote to any unclear thinking) who is one of two human beings I know of who speak in finished prose, the other being Sam Harris, a best-selling neuroscientist and philosopher who revels in taking on some of the most controversial and pressing issues of our times, but I digress (look him up though, seriously).
For the following two weeks, in between these wide-ranging rapid-fire exchanges of ideas that I call “focused brainstorming sessions”, where we traveled from the steps of a wooden beach house in Sri Lanka under the marigold-fading-into-cobalt sky to a Christian drug rehabilitation center during Christmas in Dongguan, Guangdong Province; from a local museum in Auschwitz where mountains of the Holocaust survivors’ hair and shoes were on display to finally a vase of lavender resting on the dinner table back at Brighton College. There, a stream of internal monologues reflecting on these innocent-looking buds of purple ascending on thin and upright stems helped home in on James’ PS topic – beauty, both physical and metaphysical, but especially the kind that seems to defy logical reason, or what French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal liked to describe as the heart’s reasons “of which reason knows nothing.”
To backtrack a bit, James has always been attracted to “pretty things”, that is things many would consider “girly”. It was this vexed relationship with “pretty things” that spooled out a deeply personal and vulnerable coming-of-age story that interrogated and wrestled with the definition of beauty before finding it in himself and in others.
When first proposed, this topic was polarizing and had raised quite a few eyebrows amongst our essay committee members for its rawness that border-lined unnecessarily confessional. But most importantly, the original draft contained vignettes that were tinged with homophobia and could be argued by some to be vaguely sexist – still touchy and regrettably controversial issues in contemporary America. But we decided to take the risk and go with it because this was ultimately James’ application, his story, and his truth. No one gets to pick for him but himself.
But the decision might not be as risky after all; and counterintuitively, it might have proven to tip the scale in James’ favor. In fact, recent psychological research bears out the social benefit of what’s called “the beautiful mess effect”, popularized by the book Daring Greatly by Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston. According to Dr. Brown, “we love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we are afraid to let them see it in us … Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me.” Because, there’s often an intriguing mismatch between how people (James in this case) perceive their own vulnerabilities and how others (gatekeepers, aka AOs at selective schools) interpret them – what people consider to be a mess (personality flaws, inadequacies, or weakness) might actually come across as alluring and courageous to others.
After all, everybody loves to root for the “underdog” and hear a good “rags-to-riches” story. These imperfections don't immediately disqualify us or make us look weak; quite the opposite, these blemishes make us relatable, and more to the point, they make us human. But before you start divulging your deepest secrets or broadcasting your most humiliating blunders to the whole world, please know that, as with most peer-reviewed scientific research, there are caveats to this study as well (read the book if you’re curious about what they are. I won’t sidetrack here).
At the same time, given the premium private US colleges place on the “fit” factor these days when weighing otherwise equally qualified candidates, it’s doubly important for applicants to be truthful about their experiences and the stories they choose to tell, especially when these stories reveal integral and meaningful aspects of who they are as individuals, not in spite of, but preciously because of the warts and all. Because this way and only this way, even if a school rejects you, at the very least can you know that you’re doing both yourself and the school a big favor by saving the struggle of forcing a pairing that’s never meant to be in the first place (the analogy to matrimony here may not be the most apt, but you get my point).
Now, my job as a counselor was simply to help James tell the story in the most thoughtful and nuanced way possible while preserving his unique voice, the latter of which I’ve written about at length before. Viewed in this light, apart from it being the right thing to do, being truthful about your truth is in fact the only way to stand out.
When the match is good, as was the case for James, the reward can be handsome!
Below is an excerpt of the personal letter from the AO in charge of James’ region (James got it as part of the physical package Columbia mailed out together with his official admissions letter):
“I was the first person to read your application, and I spoke about you at great length during the committee process…
When reading applications, we look for candidates who are not only great academicians, but who are also true citizens of the world – thinkers and leaders who have enriched their communities with their artistic, scientific, athletic, and humanitarian contributions…
I can’t promise you fields of lavender, but I can promise you stacks of books and thousands of classmates ready to discuss and debate them…
The admissions committee and I agree you are an amazing match for Columbia.”
A mutually salutary decision indeed!
So now, what if James is still imperfect?
And what if James still likes pretty things?
So what? Big deal. Because at the end of the day, nothing is more real, of more consequence, and takes more courage than being able to truly see and accept yourself for who you are.
As Rufus Wainwright sang (and James wrote in his PS):
And all these pretty things
And don’t say you don’t notice them
Now, let me take a quick but necessary detour here. Notice the AO talked about how he “spoke about [James] at great length during the committee process”?
See, a lot of times, the decision whether or not to admit an applicant ultimately boils down to how passionately and the extent to which your regional AOs are willing to advocate for your candidacy when the committee convenes for a vote. And guess what? It’s not the mechanics of your application, certainly not your standardized test scores, nor the numbers on your transcript, not even that leadership role you worked so hard towards that AOs will fight for; but the stories and the person you are becoming on the cusp of adulthood as told through these stories. Nothing fires them up more than a personally impactful and memorable life story. On this, I often think of a quote by the American poet, singer, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Though the quote is taken a bit out of context, the point is still clear.
So, let’s make the AOs feel something, something so poignant and sticky that when they have finally wrapped up for the day after reading literally hundreds of essays, they can still remember your stories and you. Let’s not make the lives of AOs easy. Let’s make them debate and fight for our students. Let’s give them the reason and the energy to don their boxing gloves!
OK. Enough of James’ personal stories. Now, a couple takeaways on how to work with students like James, as many of you are probably curious.
1) Start early, as James did, so there is enough time to read and reflect, to make mistakes and then course-correct, to fine-tune academic interests and deepen extracurricular passions, to explore intellectually and grow emotionally. The last point is especially salient for late bloomers.
2) Take the long view. Getting too caught up in the nitty-gritty details of anything is just a surefire way to crank up your anxiety level – too risky a proposition for families prone to neuroticism, which I’ve seen to be on the rise lately with the over-saturation of information of varying degrees of trustworthiness.
3) If you are a parent, cultivate in your household a love of learning for the sake of learning, rather than beating your kids into academic submission while crushing the spark of genuine intellectual curiosity. The spark is important and it comes across – in college essays, job interviews, in relationships, and what have you.
4) Relatedly, and I think it’s worth repeating here. Please do not treat a college education, and by extension, learning in general like a means to an end, simply because statistics doesn’t really substantiate the “means”. The link here is messy at best, illusory at worst. And there is no end.
5) If you are suffering from paralysis by analysis or feeling suffocated in the tight grips of habitual reductio ad absurdum (i.e. the tendency to take things to their logic extreme and making decisions based off of that). Get the opinions of someone you trust and just go with it. Many times, it is so much better than stalling or avoiding decision making due to a fear of making the wrong one.
6) Lastly, while it’s important to have some fun along the way, please keep your eyes on the ball and don’t get distracted too far off track. Just remember, a mortal sage once remarked: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
Last last words to future “James” and James-wannabes.
I know writing essays is hard, and no one said it’s going to be easy. Which is why baby steps are perfectly fine, so is some initial hand-holding, but please quit second-guessing everything and calling everything “a cliché”. Because that only achieves two things: you psyched yourself out of any potentially good essay topic by believing you don't have experiences worth writing about; at the same time, you just disrespected your own intellect, and those of us who were trying to help you. Worst of all, it’s really harmful to your mental well-being.
To that end, the antidote I prescribe is a combination of pep talks, many small milestones and hard deadlines (and accountability to make them count, which should go without saying), plus a lot of structured free writing exercises and thought experiments to liberate such students from their stifling self-consciousness.
If all fails, just repeat after me the following mantras three times before you begin a draft:
Perfection is the enemy of the good.
A good essay is a finished essay.
And with that, I am finished, too (no pun intended).