Summertime – The Livin’ Should be Easy with Strengths

Letters - to the Editor or from your vacation?

A recent New York Times article called, “For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers,” author Jenny Anderson reported on many glamorous opportunities privileged students felt obligated to do in order to augment their college applications, and more specifically, their college essays.  The comments on the article, as well as the Letters to the Editor that followed shared a number of opinions that seemed to feel that these high-powered summers might not always be in the best interests of students.

As we near the end of the summer, I start to eagerly anticipate seeing my students again.  I always start our first lesson catching up learning about the student’s summer.  This always delights me, because I love to hear about the new adventures and “aha” moments each child had over the summer.  I also listen carefully to see if they have had some time to relax and recover from the previous school year.  Children need rest too, and while I do encourage them to keep reading or practicing certain skills over the summer, I also want to know that they spent time with their friends and family and had some time just “to be.”

To be honest, most of the students returning to my office this September will not be college seniors.  But for those who are, I really hope that they have not seen their summers in a mercenary or transactional light, but I fear that this is exactly what the New York Times article suggests may be happening.  Indeed, a trip to China or the Amazon has the possibility of being a transformational experience.  But we should not overlook that there are plenty of “transformational experiences,” right here at home.

Reflect Deeply - over the summer and in your essays!

Although one of the essay topics on the Common Application asks student to describe “a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you,” a fancy trip or internship will not necessarily make for the best essay.  The temptation to write about the experience with the expectation that that alone is enough to make a student a good candidate is false.  A good college essay requires deeper reflection—the expectation on the side of the reader is not to learn what you did, it is to learn WHO YOU ARE.

All of this leads me back to the importance of teaching students to understand their strengths.  Strengths, rather than boarding passes or internship IDs, allow students to explain the “impact” something had on them.  Using or developing a strength you know you have, or finding a new one, is a makes an essay a much more compelling story than a description of your itinerary or the highlights of all the events you attended during your internship.  Even better, strengths manifest themselves all the time in all kinds of ways.  A relationship with a family member, a scary test, a funny and or/embarrassing story with a friend has as much potential for a great essay as a trip to Nepal.

So with that off my chest, I promise to get to what I said I was going to do… talk about the strengths.  Next up:  COURAGE!


Letters – to the Editor or from your vacation? courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt

Reflect Deeply – over the summer and in your essays! courtesty of Lori Greig

Writing A Personal Essay – Plant Your Seed

Application essays can be tough.  The questions for the common application are particularly difficult because they are so broad and far-reaching; it almost seems like anything is fair game.  But a good college essay lets the admission officer know who YOU are.  The best essays allow a student to become a real-life person.

You are not just grades and scores!

Most of the other information in a student’s file is quantitative data, and the essay is the only part of the application where a student gets to speak on his or her own behalf.  ACT, SAT, PSAT or ISSE scores, grades and activity lists do not make a person.  They are just statistics… they make it easier to determine if a student can do the work of a school, but really they don’t offer any real clues about the thoughts, feeling and values of the student.  Teacher recommendations and interview reports also help give a sense of who you are, but they are other people’s impressions.  Answering the essay question allows the admissions officers to get to know YOU.  What do you think and care about?  Once they have a chance to “meet you” through your essay, they begin to see why YOU belong at “Bliss U.”

Don't say what everyone else thinks too!

Why have I started to refer students to the VIA Strengths Inventory?  Well, it is simple really.  When I started working with students writing personal essays, I noticed that they lacked a certain vocabulary.  Joan Bress and Charlotte Klaar explained it best in their talk at this year’s IECA Summer Training Institute.  Often students are tempted to write essays about “Universal Truths.”  A personal essay that has the punch line:  “I learned that winning is not always the most important thing” is a yawn, especially if you have read thirty other essays with the same conclusion that day.  Reading facts of life is very different than reading about the qualities that make you a special, unique and interesting individual.

How do the strengths help?  Well, they are twenty-four concepts that should be part of everyone’s vocabulary, and they give us words to talk about our best traits.  What are the strengths?  As I have mentioned there are 24 of them, and they fall into 6 categories:

Strengths and Virtures

Yes, strengths are big ideas, but don’t be intimidated by them.  The thing about the strengths is that they help give you a context and a language to talk about how you have shown strength in a given circumstance.  An essay that says:  “I am a funny, fair and curious person” is a total yawn for an admissions officer.

Plant your seed

Instead, familiarity with the strengths allows a student identify and describe a situation or event that allowed them to use his or her humor, fairness and curiosity.  Once you have learned about the strengths in general, and perhaps identified your top strengths, then they should go right into the back of your mind.  Stories, not strengths, make for good application essays.  Story-telling allows you to that demonstrate how you used the strength(s) that ways that are unique and personal.  Stories sprout ideas in the readers heads, and hopefully they make the (admissions) reader like you and see a place for you at their school.

bedtime story or newspaper article - keep 'em interested!

Think about the characters in the movies.  Many of the characters exemplified lots of the strengths, including bravery, open-mindedness, love, forgiveness and humor.  But it wasn’t those strengths alone that made you want to see the movie, right?  The plot and situations created a framework for the characters to demonstrate those different traits, and the way they all got woven together into a beautiful story made Avatar a great movie and a huge blockbuster success.  So, this is the reason we use stories for personal essays, as a backdrop for letting a reader understand what strengths we possess and use.  There is a famous saying for writers that says: “Show, don’t tell.”  Again, lists of traits are ultimately boring.  But when you use a story from your life well to explain why you are so strong and interesting, you capture your reader’s attention– you want it to be as captivating as a good bedtime story or newspaper article.

The Goal - "Bliss" University

Why is the story about your piano recital/football game/summer vacation your sophomore year so important to you?  What happened, and what STRENGTHS did you use or discover in that moment?  No one else has your story or those strengths in that combination.  That’s what makes you a unique individual, and that’s exactly what the folks at “Bliss U” want to read all about.


You are not just grades and scores courtesy of

Don’t say what everyone else thinks too! courtesy of

Plant your seed courtesy of

bedtime story or newspaper article courtesy of ralphhogaboom

“Bliss” University courtesy of Steve-h