Are You College Material?

Last week, at the behest of my wife Linda, I joined her at our son’s high school “College Night.”

This three-hour event featured a number of workshops for high school juniors and their parents, all with the aim of getting the family up to speed on the upcoming application process. Given that neither Linda nor I had been anywhere near a college application since the Carter administration, a refresher seemed in order.

The evening was divided into four time slots, each offering three or four workshops to choose from. Linda wisely suggested that we split up, in order to cover more ground.

She told me that I should attend the session on “Writing a College Essay,” and that from there, I should just go to whatever else interested me. Luckily, I found a session called “Free Coffee and Cookies in the Guidance Office,” and I’m happy to tell you that it did not disappoint.

Nor did the session on essay-writing. The guest speaker was a friendly young guy named Bob, an admissions officer from Boston College.

After setting the stage with a little background, he offered up a number of “application essay recommendations.” Many of these, I realized, apply just as well to E-Newsletters. I share them with you now…

  1. Go Deep. According to Bob, many applicants try to jam as many projects and accomplishments as possible into each essay. The result is something that’s more distracting than interesting, and that usually does nothing to shine a light on the person. Picking one highlight and talking in-depth about it, he said, is a better approach.

    In an e-mail newsletter, you’re similarly constrained by reader interest and attention span. Under these conditions, the best way to be memorable, useful and expert-ish is to pick a single idea, explain it, and leave.

  1. Choose Authenticity Over Entertainment. One of the parents asked whether it was “okay to be funny” in an essay. I loved Bob’s answer: “It’s fine to use humor if you’re a funny person. If you’re 17 years old and you’re still not sure if you’re funny… you’re not.”

    In a business context, humor is also something to beware of. Yes, the more entertaining your E-Newsletter is the more likely people are to read it. But remember, you’re not looking for an audience for its own sake – you’re trying to give readers a sense of you… a free sample.

    If your newsletter is funny but you’re not, you’ll attract prospects who are disappointed when they finally meet you. By the same token, you’ll push away those who’d prefer a more serious approach (and who would have been thrilled with the real you).

  1. Speak Human. Bob has read thousands of essays; he stressed that at this point, he has a pretty good idea of what a high school junior sounds like. Trying to sound “more adult,” by using big words and complicated phrasing, makes students sound artificial and ultimately less appealing. (“We’re interested in admitting kids, not grown-ups.”)

    Likewise, the readers of your newsletter (or web site or white paper or whatever) have had thousands of conversations with actual Earthlings. They know what they sound like. Why then do so many businesspeople write as if someone had asked them to compose the warning label on a bottle of aspirin?

    Try to be conversational. Uncommon words like “behest” (What, did you think I put that up top by accident?) don’t impress. They sound unnatural, and do nothing to connect you with the reader.

  1. Be Different. Bob mentioned how in some towns with a particularly vibrant volunteer program, he can get 20 or 30 essays from one high school on the same topic (a single church mission trip to another country, for example). While this kind of event is an admirable and obvious highlight in the life of a high school junior, if everyone’s writing about it, you won’t stand out.

    One of the reasons I like to include personal stories in E-Newsletters is because by definition, they’re unique. Nobody but you can tell your story, authentically. Look for angles, examples, insights and stories that belong to you.

Here’s the bottom line. When it comes to reading college essays, the Bobs of the world are paid to slog through whatever comes their way. The readers of your newsletter are under no such obligation. Make sure yours is worth reading.

(I’ll be hiding in the guidance office if you need me.)

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