There are few things that cause panic in a student like mentioning the words, "college essay." It's understandable; our educational culture has shed an unflattering light on the word "essay." After all, in popular culture, what are "bad" students forced to do? Write. They are forced to write on the chalkboard, write an apology note, or write a reflection essay. When students are asked to write in class, they are usually forced to conform their vision to a set of rules or standards such as word counts, page minimums, page maximums, specific citation styles, or an inflexible essay structure that acts like more of a recipe than an expression of a student's thoughts and ideas.
College essays are different from any essay most students will ever write in their English class, and that's why I love them. I've spoken at length about how the college search is so much more than just an acceptance letter. The college search offers an incredibly valuable opportunity for students to turn their gaze inward and begin an important journey of self-reflection and growth. If a student approaches the college search with an open mind, they will find themselves analyzing who they are, how they became themselves, and what they hope to be in the future. That introspection provides the resources for crafting compelling and unique essays that show both authenticity and vulnerability.
Some college essays have very specific prompts that can be skillfully dissected and deciphered to discover what sort of response the college is searching for. Students tend to have an easier time with prompts, but in my experience, real growth comes from the moments where a student must choose their own topic. It saddens me to say it, but many students go through their entire K-12 education without ever writing an essay on a topic of their choosing with no restrictions on style or formatting. Because most students learn writing while confined within a cage of rules, very few know where they should even begin to compose something that is uniquely theirs. I've seen this scenario countless times with students, so today I'm going to breakdown a simple, but effective, exercise to help brainstorm ideas, topics, and themes for a college essay.
The Animal Exercise
We created the nifty infographic above for students and families, but this blog post will delve a little deeper into explaining this exercise.
Why an Animal?
Truthfully, this exercise can be done with any number of other comparisons, but most people will find animals to be more natural and intuitive. For evidence, you need not look any further than our own language. Think of all the phrases we use to describe humans that center around animals: "strong as an ox," "stubborn as a mule," "sick as a dog," "brave as a lion," "quiet as a mouse," "sly as a fox," "happy as a clam," "busy as a bee," "free as a bird," etc. These similes are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Historically society utilizes nicknames like Richard the Lionheart, in the music world Charlie Parker was given the nickname "Bird,", and the famous boxer Giacobbe "Jake" LaMotta was known as "The Bronx Bull" or "Raging Bull" (made even more famous by Martin Scorsese's film starring Robert De Niro). In various cultures and religions, we even see traditions associating names or important titles with animal names and/or characteristics. No matter how you cut it, the characteristics of animals and people have been intertwined for a very long time.
What is the Animal Exercise?
The Animal Exercise is a fun, engaging, and collaborative way to help you brainstorm about the characteristics that define your personality. In the Prism Exercise, we discussed how a person's name was a convenient way of addressing the amalgamation of all their experiences in life and how it shaped them as a person (I strongly encourage you to read our blog on the topic). Similarly, animals carry more metaphorical significance than just their given names.
We frequently associate animals with personality traits or characteristics that can be shared with humans. When you think of a fox, what's the first trait that comes to mind? Most will say something along the lines of sly, cunning, or sneaky, but few people have ever actually interacted with a fox. So, when you ask people "if I were an animal, what animal would I be?" and they respond "a fox," they're associating those common characteristics with you as a person. In other words, no one is actually saying that you remind them of a fox, but rather you remind them of the idea of a fox (e.g. cunning, smart, fast, tricky, sly, sneaky). By asking people what animal you are, you gather significantly more information than if you just ask someone to describe you. A single animal can contain dozens of characteristics and cultural implications which can open the door to self-reflection.
How to use the Animal Exercise
While the Animal Exercise can be exceptionally helpful when brainstorming, there are a few pitfalls that need to be avoided to get the most out of this exercise:
Avoid Physical Comparisons: While many animal comparisons will focus on personality or cultural significance, it is not uncommon the see physical attributes play a role. A few examples: tall people might be associated with giraffes, larger people with bears, or long-legged people with gazelles. When using the Animal Exercise you will want to make sure that your comparison to animals is more than just skin-deep.
Ask Multiple People: The Animal Exercise is specifically designed to involve multiple perspectives for two main reasons:
Have you ever listened to a recording of your voice? If so, you probably didn't like it and found it difficult to believe there could be such a difference between what you and others hear. Apply that same logic to asking multiple people about your representative animal. Your internal perception of yourself doesn't always match what the external world sees. This doesn't invalidate your chosen animal, but it expands the discussion to characteristic you might not have ever associated with yourself.
Have you ever read a horoscope or had your fortune told? If so, you've probably experienced the Barnum effect. In short, the Barnum effect is a psychological term referencing the fact that people will see supposedly personalized predictions as highly accurate despite being intentionally vague and generic. Along the same lines, subject validation is when people believe supposedly personalized predictions to be correct because they play into their personal belief or narrative. You want to avoid these two phenomenon as much as possible. Seek out multiple opinions and pay attention to the similarities and differences amongst the answers. If you get an answer you don't like, don't reject it. Taking time to explore why you dislike their answer may yield valuable information about who you are, what you value, and how you view your place in the world.
After finding at least three people who know you well (including yourself), ask them the prompt and listen to their responses with an open mind. Don't be afraid to ask follow-up questions and engage in a dialogue about why they chose a particular animal. One of our core principles at Virtual College Counselors is authenticity. We believe that the college journey requires some vulnerability on a student's part. How can we ask students to demonstrate vulnerability if we don't do the same in return? So, as an example, I have created my own Animal Exercise to give students an idea of what the final product might look like. In this example, I asked my mother, a good friend, and myself the question, "if I were an animal, what animal would I be?"
If people give you a short or surface-level answer, push them to delve deeper with follow-up questions:
"Why that animal?"
"How did you come to that conclusion?"
"If you didn't know me as well, would you still choose the same animal?"
"What characteristics do I share with the animal that made you choose it?"
"When did you first think of me as this animal?"
After a student finishes the Animal Exercise, they should take a step back and look at what they've brainstormed. It's likely that there will be a few trends, narratives, or common patterns amongst the responses. Explore these animals and their traits to start to think about how you might be able to translate them into a college essay. Using myself as an example, I see at least one clear trend amongst the three animals that were identified. All three animals were associated with some form of loyalty and community. Even though the bee was not described as communal, we all are aware that bees live in a hive and are strong representatives for collectivism and community. One could also say bees are loyal, they work their entire life for the good of the hive and are willing to lay down their lives in its defense. Based on this exercise, we can safely assume that exploring my beliefs and experiences with loyalty and community will yield insight into my values, character, personality, and goals.
I recommend to go a step further and think about the college application as a whole. We use the term "application narrative" to refer to the idea that a student should view the application as a single narrative rather than several assembled pieces. The chances of an admissions counselor making an authentic connection with a student or remembering their application increases astronomically if there is a very clear application narrative.
The goal of this post is to give students, parents, and college counselors another tool in their toolbox to help craft an authentic application that promotes self-reflection and growth for a student. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to reach out or schedule a free consultation through the link below. As always, I wish you the best of luck with your journey, wherever it might take you.
With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors