With the College Essay, Authenticity is Key

By Cassie Nichols

Flamenco Dancer red dress dancing shoes

Last weekend, I sat transfixed in the auditorium of a local middle school, clapping along to flamenco music as young girls danced across the stage in brightly colored dresses. I joined the audience as it emitted a deafening roar each time a new dancer hit the stage. But I knew better than to be deceived by the floral attire, vibrant colors, and perfect up-dos; with each stomp of a heel and each twirl of a fan, these dancers were out for blood.

I loved every minute of every dance, but I was there for one purpose only: to cheer on my student, Alex, as she competed for the title of the 2015 Spirit of Fiesta, the most coveted position in Santa Barbara’s most famous event. When it was her turn to perform, I held my breath for a moment, releasing it incrementally as I watched her dominate the stage.

It’s moments like these that remind me why I love my job as a private college counselor. While it’s true that the majority of my time is spent in my office discussing college admissions with my students, every so often I get a chance to see what makes each student special. I get to see them score a goal in a water polo game, deliver a monologue in a school play, perform a song at a local coffee shop, or present a science project to a group of researchers. I get a glimpse of their family’s pride in them, and I get to share it: a reward for all the ups and downs, the moments of frustration and loss, the hard work, and the sacrifices they make.

I knew all about Alex’s long, arduous path to that moment onstage. A year ago, she sat in my office after earning runner-up in this same competition. We discussed the tough loss and what she had learned from it. It wasn’t easy. It never is, when you want something as badly as Alex had wanted this.

Then, after she’d had few months to reflect, I watched her begin to develop a college essay about the experience: about what it had felt like to be onstage, to come so close, and to fall just short of the top prize. And three months after that, I watched her submit this powerful essay: a stirring composition about not giving up, about her love of dance and her desire to work even harder the next time around.

Last weekend, in that auditorium, Alex was back for another try. She is a senior now, and doesn’t need the Spirit of Fiesta title to impress college admissions officers or to beef up her college résumé. All that is a done deal; she already knows where she is going to college next year. Nevertheless, she worked her tail off over the past year in preparation for another five-minute audition, and another shot at being named Spirit of Fiesta. She clocked those hours and weeks of grueling dance sessions because she wanted to, not because there was a chance that some admissions reader might appreciate it.

And that difference is key to a great college essay. The passion really has to be there. It has to be genuine, like it was for Alex, or the essay will be difficult to write and tiresome to read. When the authenticity is there—when the writer feels and believes everything she writes, like Alex did—the essay takes on a life and spirit all its own.

Speaking of spirit: to nobody’s surprise—least of all mine—Alex took home the title this year. With grace and poise, she accepted the honor, hugged her competitors, and waved to the audience: an audience full of people who knew that Alex was a skilled flamenco dancer, but could have no idea what this moment meant to her… unless, like me, they happened to have read her college essay.

Cassie NicholsWith the College Essay, Authenticity is Key