Getting Past ‘Personal Growth’ in College Essays

To hear some people tell it, applying to college is like appearing before a parole board. You’ve served your time for the offenses you have committed. You did something terrible, and the board needs to know you’re a better person. In other words, you have to show “personal growth” in order to get released.

Or, in this case, get admitted.

This year, an unusual number of my students have insisted that their essays need to show “personal growth.” Whether their topics center on medical research, student government, sibling relationships, or modern art, the quest to express “growth” seems ubiquitous.

The odd thing is, I have never given them any such advice. The phrase “personal growth” has never voluntarily crossed my mind. I’ll explain why in a moment.

At first I wondered where in the world they’re getting this advice. College applications tend to attract advice like a porch light attracts moths. Most of the advice, whether from parents, older students, or the Internet, is half-right at best. The challenge is to know which half to follow. In this case, the people who want to see “growth” are a presumably reputable source: college admission officers who conduct information sessions and give presentations. In session after session, they encourage students to “show growth” on their application essays.

First, let’s acknowledge that the phrase “personal growth,” especially in the context of 17-year-olds, is kind of creepy. It reminds me of acne and puberty and hormones. All things I really don’t want to think about. I’m sure colleges don’t either.

Even so, advice about personal growth persists. Many of the culprits are college reps. It’s an easy slogan for a college rep to repeat on his 23rd presentation of a two-week road trip. It’s also the kind of thing adults say to kids when they’re not taking kids seriously. It’s the kind of thing English teachers tell students when they’re more interested in a sympathetic narrative than an impressive application. (Seriously, when was the last time someone asked you, “So, tell me how you’ve grown…”?)

I’m about to contradict admission officers’ own advice about their own applications. Bear with me. And keep in mind: it’s not a college rep’s job to give advice; it’s a college rep’s job to promote his or her college.

By definition, any story of “personal growth” relies on some prior state of immaturity, incompetence, immorality, or cluelessness. Meaning, a student must reveal bad things about him- or herself in order to make the good things make sense. Many “growth” essays refer to prior states of anxiety, unfriendliness, or uncooperativeness.

I’m not opposed to vulnerability. But I am opposed to self-flagellation, and I’m opposed to TMI. If I’m an admissions officer “meeting” an applicant for the very first time, his “growth” is irrelevant. If I never knew he existed until I opened his file, why do I care if he didn’t eat broccoli until 2014 or that he glued his fingers together in first grade?

Personal growth can make for compelling stories. Indeed, many stories rely on anguish, failure, and frailty. Think of, say, every novel in American literature class, every story in the Bible, and every religious myth. We learn a lot from Sisyphus, Job, and Ahab. But a compelling story is not necessarily the same thing as an impressive college essay.

If you have something good to say about yourself — and if you’re applying to selective colleges, presumably you do believe there’s something good about you — you shouldn’t undermine the good by focusing on the bad. Yes, tales of triumph can be compelling. But admissions of faults and shortcomings have subliminal impacts on readers even in light of happy endings..

I’ve seen many students undermine otherwise strong essays in the name of shoehorning in “personal growth.” Usually the shoehorning takes the place of a tedious, woeful back-story that finally culminates in an impressive accomplishment in the very last paragraph and an air of off-putting, but not entirely justified, self-satisfaction. Usually, I highlight all the preceding paragraphs, write “omit,” and turn that final paragraph into the whole essay.

Consider:

  • The chemistry student who won the regional science fair in 11th grade but whose baking soda volcano fizzled in 5th grade: tell us about that science fair.
  • The Boy Scout who whined through a rainy hike at age 12 but organized a three-night backpack trip for his patrol to earn his Life rank: tell us how you mapped that trip, researched the route’s geology, and encouraged the Tenderfoots to keep going.
  • The debater who ran out of ideas two minutes into a four-minute speech as a novice but came in third place in the state last year: tell us what you wish you said in that semifinal round.
  • The advocate for bilateral nuclear disarmament who previously couldn’t find Russia on a map: tell us about the nukes.
  • The actor who forgot his lines in the elementary school Christmas pageant but who brought down the house in King Lear: tell us what it was like to go mad on the heath four nights in a row.

Tell us what you believe. Tell us what you think. Tell us what you’ve accomplished. Tell us about your perspective on the world. Tell us about the awesome person you are right now — not the anxious, naive, unskilled, unknowing person you were last week, last year, or last decade. “I am…” is infinitely more powerful than “I used to be…” (This is why I recommend that applicants focus on the recent past and not on early childhood stories, no matter how cute they may be.)

If you don’t believe me, let’s turn this around.

If a college advertises that its political science students used to get rejected from their top choice law schools until the college updated its curriculum, is that a reason to choose that college? Surely it’s not. You’ll choose the college if it tells you that today its admission rate to Harvard Law is — today — over 30 percent.

Likewise, would a rising senior hire me if I told her that my students used to get routinely rejected until I “grew” into competency? Hardly. You should want to know how my students did last year — because that performance is what’s most likely relevant to an aspiring applicant.

In both cases, stories of “growth” might be interesting — but only as trivia. They do not give students — as potential applicants or clients — reasons to take action.

If you still don’t believe me, look at the Common Application.

The Common App offers seven essay prompts for its “personal statement.” Of the six substantive prompts, exactly one of them — №5 — asks “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth…” Now, this doesn’t mean that essays responding to the other five prompts can’t include personal growth. But it does mean that they do not have to. “Growth” is but one of many types of narratives or analyses that applicants can express. “Growth” surely can work for some students. But, for many students, a focus on growth in fact leads them to shrink, wither, and regress.

I have a higher opinion of high school students. Everybody “grows” in high school. There’s nothing special about that. What’s special are the ideas students have developed, relationships they’ve forged, observations they’ve made, adventures they’ve had, challenges they’ve faced, and accomplishments they’ve amassed along the way.

Indeed, most college applicants are the opposite of criminals. They’re great kids with bright futures. Essays should not confess past guilt. They should testify to future potential.

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.

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