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.
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The Zombie Apocalypse Exercise
Here's a nifty infographic with a brief synopsis of the exercise, but below we will delve further.
Why a Zombie Apocalypse?
While there are likely other survival (and non-survival) team-building exercises that could be used to explore personal values and skill sets, the case for the zombie apocalypse remains the strongest. The Walking Dead TV show, Resident Evil video games, and George A. Romero's movies are among many other media giants keeping zombies (un)alive in the sphere of popular culture. When college admission officers are reviewing applications, they are always looking for reasons to admit an applicant, and it's important to remember that they are taking the time to visualize each student as a member of that college's student body. So what does each applicant who is admitted bring to the table? In more cases than not, they are looking for applicants who offer something special or unique, be it a quality or characteristic, a skillset, or a particular value.
Similarly, when we think about a zombie apocalypse, particularly how they are portrayed in film, there is always some component of building a survival team (consider Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and 28 Days Later). But how does one determine which team to join, or how does a team determine who might be a welcome addition? In order to answer this question, we need to break down what characteristics and skill sets might be needed to help a group thrive (and survive), and this might vary by location, the skills already existing within the group, group size and culture, or any number of other things. Just like colleges, who focus on institutional priorities when building their incoming class, the needs of the group likely supersede the needs of a single potential group member.
While we might be talking about a zombie apocalypse, any number of other examples can be used in its place. Another example to conceptualize this idea is joining or recruiting for a football team. If a team already has three quarterbacks (which, according to the internet, is pretty rare), they most likely aren't seeking a fourth. Or perhaps you are interested in joining a trivia team because you have extensive knowledge of pop culture and music, and you meet a group of people whose knowledge base revolves around history, classical music, the Marvel universe, and award winning movies--you likely would be a unique asset to the team.
All this to say, in a zombie apocalypse, I imagine being on a well-balanced team of complementary individuals will likely yield more positive results.
What is the Zombie Apocalypse Exercise?
The Zombie Apocalypse exercise is a unique and fun way to conceptualize your place in the world, on a team (or in this case, an incoming college class), and how your attributes can aid in the capacity of a team to survive and thrive. Ultimately, with the right guidance, many students will find the vocabulary to not only advocate for their place on a zombie survival team, but also how to advocate for themselves in joining an academic or professional community.
Consider the case of COVID-19, which resulted in an unprecedented impact on students and education systems across the globe. The colleges that remained open to students and operated successfully with in-person learning between 2020 and 2021 all had a handful of things in common: the resources to remain open in a safe capacity (which required frequent testing, isolation space for those who may have been infected, and the ability to socially distance), a campus community that understood the severity of the pandemic (following strict guidelines), and a student body composed of resilient and determined students. The skills and traits that students embraced to make the most of this turbulent time are the same traits I would be looking for in those interested in joining my survival team.
You need more than just brains (ha, zombie jokes) to survive and thrive during an apocalypse (and in any college, job, and relationship). So what do you bring to the table?
How to Use the Zombie Apocalypse Exercise
While most brainstorming exercises can be done efficiently by oneself, the zombie exercise is most effective when more than one person engages. Exploring this idea with others creates space to challenge each other to dig deep and explore the why instead of the what. For example, let's say you're fast and you feel that is your best attribute for a zombie apocalypse team. What if that team already has several fast members, so speed isn't an attribute they're looking for? If you still believe speed is the factor that should get you on the team, how do you plan to utilize it in a way that is mutually and uniquely beneficial? If you can't think of an answer to these follow-up questions, what's your next argument for being allowed membership?
Ideally, throughout these discussions with friends, family, advisors, and mentors, you are learning how to describe your unique skill sets beyond the typical hard skills (like strength, lock-picking, first-aid, speed, etc.). This exercise is designed to get you to think beyond what you typically would consider a skill, and to explore how you envision, identify, and communicate your strengths. In addition, the conversational piece of this exercise allows for at least one participant to play the devil's advocate role. For example, let's say you're having this conversation with a recruiter for a desirable job. When the recruiter tells you that being proficient in a specific coding language isn't enough to get you the job, how do you present this particular skill in a convincing manner? Or how do you process and redirect the conversation toward this open opportunity to explore other attributes that may be more relevant, enticing, and desirable?
In this exercise, it's also important to consider what type of team you would even want to join. Who's to say that my team is going to be the best team? For example, if you're a leader, and we already have a leader, we likely won't want too many cooks in the kitchen or the whole team could dissolve into a flurry of arguments and competition about ideas. In these cases, it's particularly helpful to consider what kind of team you would want to form if starting one from scratch. What kinds of skill can enhance your own? What traits, skills, and attributes would make you feel safe, confident, and supported? In the case of college admissions, we briefly discussed how the admission officer may view a student in the context of the incoming class they are trying to build. Considering the type of team you would like to join is very similar to considering what type of college might be a good fit for you. And by ensuring that you're applying to good-fit colleges, you'll also be cognizant about what you're looking for in a school, inasmuch as the school is looking for specific students.
The Zombie Apocalypse Exercise in Practice
The following is a step-by-step script of how this exercise might play out:
Find a friend, and establish who is the team seeker and who is the team recruiter.
The person seeking the team member (the recruiter) asks what the other person (the seeker) might bring to the team.
The seeker replies with a particular skill they see as valuable, unique, and necessary for survival.
The recruiter then refuses the suggestion of that particular skill set, while giving a reason for the refusal (for example, the team already has a fast runner, a leader, a locksmith, and a medic, so being CPR/first-aid certified doesn't help the team much).
The applicant responds by either honing in on the aforementioned skillset and making an argument for why their skills would still be beneficial despite the objection, or offering a value proposition different than their first, so that they can still vie for a spot on the survival team.
Rinse and repeat.
Good luck (but I know you won't need it),
Jessica Chermak, LPC, CEP
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors