Updated: 13 hours ago
Welcome to part 2 of our blog series about video games and esports in the college application process. If you've already read part 1, feel free to skip to the new material focusing on competitive multiplayer games. If you haven't read part 1, I highly recommend reading that post first, as I tackle some foundational ideas about how a single piece of culture can affect a person's values.
I'm a nerd, let's get that out of the way. I grew up immersed sci-fi, fantasy, movies, television shows, anime, video games, board games, tabletop games, and even read certain textbooks for fun (still do, looking at you A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to The Present). My childhood pre-dated critically and commercially acclaimed comic book movies, the ability to make a living by streaming video games online, and the widespread adoption of video games for everyday audiences (think mobile phone games, or the Nintendo Wii in the mid-2000s). To put it simply, it's a lot easier to openly embrace nerdy culture now than it was during my childhood.
The social stigma and ostracization of being a "nerd" led me to hide many of my hobbies and interests from friends and family for most of my life. Sadly, I still hear echoes of these feelings in students I work with today. It's not uncommon to hear a student say, "It's easier to just say nothing than try to explain my interests, hobbies, or passions." This breaks my heart, and for this reason I've become more open about my nerdy side and encourage students to do the same.
So what does all this have to do with the college search and application process? As an admission officer and a college counselor, I've read too many essays and applications focusing on students telling me what they think I want to hear. What they don't realize is that the thing I want to read about is an authentic, introspective, and self-aware portrait of who they are as a person. Families tend to reinforce this censorship of a students personality, often both knowingly and unknowingly. We all see the stories of the 4.0 GPA, 1550 SAT, honor society student and that's what has become the standard of success. What most families don't see, but I have, is the student with an average GPA and test score that can successfully articulate why they actually participate in extracurriculars; explain their values; describe what problems they want to solve in the world; and write a unique essay that reflects who they are as a person, not just what they've accomplished. I've read thousands of essays by this point in my relatively young career, and the handful that have stuck with me had nothing to do with the students' grades, test scores, or accomplishments.
So, over the next few blog posts, I want to write about a topic that seems to grow more common each year I work with students and families: video games. It's a tale as old as the ~1980s: a parent is concerned because their student is spending too much time playing video games and not engaging with the world. I'll be the first to concede that not all students who play video games should be writing a college essay about them, and sometimes video games are just a temporary escape from the stress of life (same as movies, television, books, and any number of other hobbies). However, I'm going to posit the idea that there are a lot of students out there who have a true passion for video games and, with a little introspection, can turn that passion into a powerful asset for their college application.
During this multi-part college essay blog series, I'm going to review a few different ways to tackle the topics of video games:
The Personal Impact of Video Games
Impact of a Competitive Multiplayer Game (You Are Here)
The Impact of Video Games on a Student's Professional or Academic Path
Video Games as a Catalyst for Pursuing a STEM Education (Coming Soon...)
Video Games as an Interdisciplinary Collaborative (Coming Soon...)
As a reader, I want you to keep in mind two more universally understood concepts into which we can distill these essays:
An introspective look into how a form of culture has shaped a student's ideas, beliefs, values, and personality.
An introspective look into how a student began a journey to help shape others through the act of creation or innovation.
Impact of a Competitive Multiplayer Game
It's a Saturday, no homework or tests, all of the chores are done, and a student is looking to have some fun with a pickup game. None of the student's friends are available, so they head to a community gathering spot and join some strangers to play on a team. It's a five-on-five match and all of these people are strangers to one another. They all know the rules of the game, but they don't know each other's strengths, weaknesses, or general temperaments. Together they need to adapt, communicate, and leverage each other's talents. The players are stressed and the air is tense, any number of mistakes could lead to arguments amongst these strangers. The competition is fierce and no individual person has enough talent to win alone, so this group of strangers has to become a unified team to claim victory.
I'm not describing a pickup game of basketball, soccer, or rugby at a local community park. I'm describing League of Legends, an incredibly popular competitive team-based strategy game that pits two teams of five strangers against each other in matches that, on average, last from 30-45 minutes. For those not familiar with League of Legends, imagine a game of chess with over 60 unique pieces from which to choose. Each player on your team can only choose and control one piece. Ultimately these two teams of five make moves at the exact same time (instead of taking turns) advancing through "lanes" and destroying the opposing team's "nexus" (base). The game is a mix of strategy based on immense game knowledge, real-time reaction speed against living opponents, and delicate social management to keep five strangers from losing their tempers or the will to win.
An essay focusing on experiences with competitive video games tends to be less reliant on the art, characters, or story and more on development of skills that can be applicable to the world outside of video games. These are essays that also tend to highlight a student's interest in esports (professional/collegiate level teams for competitive video games). Let's look at a quick example using League of Legends:
A student begins to play an online competitive game. They aren't the best at first, but with time and practice they begin to climb the official ranking system for the game. They hone their situational awareness, problem solving and critical thinking skills, and ability to adapt their plans and strategies to everchanging circumstances. Eventually, their practice has yielded significant increases in personal skill, but this isn't a game where one player can win the entire game for their team. So now the student has to develop a completely separate set of skills independent of their own performance. During the next 30-45 minutes the student will have to maintain a balancing act of demonstrating leadership, supporting their teammates, and playing peacekeeper if tensions run high amongst teammates. But here's the catch: the student needs to do all of this using only text. Ultimately, a student should be able to highlight personal growth, development of leadership and mediation skills, and explain how this growth and development has affected their life outside of video games.
The above example is very common, but students often lack the vocabulary or introspection to translate their experiences into lessons or skills that the general public would understand. One exercise to help a student feel more comfortable discussing their growth through competitive video games is to have them look at the experiences through a lens of competitive sports. High schools and colleges have no problem recognizing the benefits gained through competitive sports and terminology to highlight this kind of growth already exists and is readily available. Students can start by thinking about the common narratives surrounding benefits from sports, and then modify them to fit their personal experiences based on competitive video games. Here are some common questions or thoughts that might help a student get started on an essay focusing on competitive multiplayer gaming:
How and why did you get involved in competitive gaming? Are you a naturally competitive person who was drawn to that kind of game? Were you coerced into playing a competitive game because of a friend? Is playing an online game how you hang out with your friends? Think of the origin story for your passion about competitive video games.
How have you changed since you started playing competitive video games? Are you more confident? Have you strengthened your leadership or communication skills? Have you developed some resilience or grit through dealing with unruly teammates or losing a hard-fought match? I cannot emphasize enough the importance of describing your journey and transformation. After all, you are the star of this essay.
Are you interested in playing competitively at the collegiate level? Esports is the fastest growing college and high school sport in the world and a college that is putting esports as a strategic priority will be looking for talented and competitive students to help bolster their program. Demonstrating interest in a college's specific program might give you a slight edge in the admissions process.
What are some examples of lessons you learned through competitive gaming and how have you put them into practice outside of the game? If you have identified skills or lessons learned through these competitive video games and believe you have grown from these experiences then the next step is to show the reader how these changes have manifested in your everyday life.
Have you or your team actually competed in a local, state, regional, or national video game competition? If so, make sure to speak about this experience, what it entailed, and how you grew from it. Don't fall into the trap of spending your precious word count to tell a recount every detail about the event. Spend majority of your essay (60-80%) focusing on what you did during the event, how you utilized your newfound skills, why the event was meaningful, and where did you take your passion after the event (did you continue to participate in competitions)?
When talking with students and parents about how to utilize competitive video games in college applications, I usually ask about the student's interest in esports. It's important to realize not every student who plays a competitive video game is looking to play competitively in college (or after). The esports world is particularly competitive, and a student needs to be an exceptional player to continue competitively after the collegiate level. There will be a blog post later in the series focusing on the world of collegiate esports, but I did want to clarify for both students and parents that playing competitive video games can be an asset without a student needing to be involved in a collegiate esports program.
I hope that after reading this students feel a little more empowered to be vocal about their passions, and families feel a little more comfortable with the prospect of their student writing about the impact a competitive video game might have had on them. In part 3, we'll take a look at how a student can take their experience from social or cooperative multiplayer games and turn it into an interesting essay topic.
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With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors