One of my favorite students came to me late in her senior year for some guidance about her admissions essays for college. We had a productive chat. We talked about "show don't tell" and about "hidden agenda." I advised her to make her personal statement, well, personal, and to avoid using "plethora," "esoteric," and other ten-dollar words when three-dollar words would do. I showed Helga some essays that my other students had written over the years and then excused her to sit down and write in my outer office. I had another student with whom I had to meet; Helga had her lap top; we were late in the admissions cycle; there seemed to be no reason to delay.
Admittedly, Helga was under the gun. Even with the ease and convenience of the common application*, she had a great many essays to write and a limited amount of time to get them written. If she was to submit her applications in a timely fashion, she was going to have to write one essay every day! And that wouldn't leave her a lot of time to reflect and edit.
After an hour, I looked in on Helga to see how she was doing. I had heard a great deal of typing--my office doors are thin--for the first 20 minutes and then nothing for quite some time.
"How's it going?" I asked.
"Great," Helga said. "I'm half way done, well on the way to 500 words."
I read over what she had written and agreed that she was on the right track. Her essay spoke well of her, communicated who she was and what was important to her. "But why have you stopped typing?"
"Oh," Helga said sheepishly. "I need an 'umlaut'. I'm having trouble with the word processing program. I can't seem to get the word processor to make an 'umlaut' over the 'u' in 'Mueller.' That's my family name, you know. 'Mueller'."
A man comes across his buddy on his hands and knees, crawling around under a street light. "What's going on?" he asks.
"I lost my silver dollar," his friend replies.
"Oh, I'll help you look. Where did you lose it?"
"Over there. In the woods."
"If you lost your silver dollar over there in the woods, then why are you looking for it here, by the street lamp?"
"Because it's dark over there in the woods."
This joke is so old that the street lamp probably burns oil rather than uses electricity, but the point is well made nonetheless. Our students spend a great deal of time and resources looking for their silver dollars in the wrong place. If Helga submits a half finished, 200 word essay, WITH PERFECT UMLAUTS, she will not help her chances of being admitted to her first choice college. Indeed, if she is unable to finish her essay because she is stuck looking for umlauts, she won't submit her applications and won't go anywhere. If, on the other hand, she can ignore the umlauts and write an essay of the proper length, she will have a completed application and a reasonable chance of admission. With an unfinished essay, Helga won't apply and will have no chance. With a finished essay, she is in the game, can apply to a number of schools, be admitted to some of them, and will end up going to college.
As concerned parents, teachers, and counselors, we need to help our students focus on that which is important. We need to help them get past looking for the 'umlauts."