By: Justin Shelby


There is a great passage in a book I read lately, Think Like a Freak, by Levitt and Dubner, that is applicable to many of you today or will be applicable to you soon.

The passage discusses the optimal strategy for taking penalty kicks in soccer. As you probably know, the best penalty kick puts the ball in the upper right or left hand corner. This way, even if the goalie guesses correctly, he won’t be able to make the save. But attempting this shot is dangerous because it’s easy to bang off the crossbar or miss entirely. Because the kicker is so close to the goalie, the goalie has to guess, that is, he doesn’t have time to react. He just has to pick a direction and throw himself there. Knowing this fact about goalie behavior implies a better strategy: kick straight down the middle – you’ll almost never miss (because it’s easy to kick a ball straight) and you’ll almost always score (because the goalie will almost always dive left or right as soon as the ball is struck).

It turns out (all this, again, according to Levitt and Dubner) that, given the current behavior of goalies, this is the course of action that would most likely result in a goal for you and your team. Yet, match after match, we see players choosing to take the risky action rather than the safe action. Why? Because of how a player would be viewed by others if he fails under different conditions. Kick into the corner and score, you’re a stud. Kick into the corner and miss, oh-so-close, at least you tried, it happens. Kick down the middle AND the goalie happens to stop it, you look like an idiot. Ronaldo himself has missed penalty kicks aimed at the corners, but at least he was trying something hard. You can’t even kick down the middle right. So we have a weird situation where it’s better to miss the goal and feel like you did the right thing than to actually do the right thing, just in case you miss the goal.[1]

Many of you are struggling to find good topics for your personal essays. At this point, to struggle is normal, especially if you are not used to expressing yourself eloquentlyin print. There are several components of this last statement might cause difficulty. First, you may not be used to expressing yourself at all. Second, you may not be used to expressing yourself in the form of the personal essay. And third, you may not beused to expressing yourself eloquently in essay form. Thus you must struggle to attain proficiency. Your position is, to quote the Montaigne you should have read, “…good, ordinary, and regular.” When you do get accepted into college which fits you like a glove, in part because of an essay that you worked extraordinarily hard to turn into something both true and worth reading, you’ll appreciate the struggle. But it is a struggle. There is no denying that.

And so, as you struggle, at some point during this process, some 70% of you will ask me, “Can I just look at successful essays online?” And my answer will be no. For one thing, you don’t know what made an essay successful for a specific applicant. An essay about engineering, or bras, or buttercups might work for one applicant because of his or her profile, but wouldn’t work for you because of your profile. For another thing, we don’t know if the essays released by admissions counselors are representative of successful essays as a whole. We don’t know if they represent what successful essays are or what counselors think they would like successful essays to be. And we don’t know if the truest form of your essay would look anything like those essays that are printed in the NYT and elsewhere.

The reason that I’ve had you slog through authors like Woolf, Seneca and Montaigne (but mostly refuse, with some targeted exceptions, to allow you to look at essays written by your peers) is because, while attentively reading these older authors can help show you what a good essay looks like, their expressions and interests are so distant from yours that there is little danger you will imitate them too closely. The problem with reading essays written by people your age, with all the same dreams and aspirations, is that it is too easy to imitate them in both technique and content.You are too alike. It’s too easy for this process, a process that is supposed to be about self-exploration and discovery, to turn into a process of imitating conventional success as defined by whatever selection of college essays the New York Times chose to publish.

Fundamentally, this process is about expressing yourself. And part of self-expression is finding the most fitting form and matter for that self-expression. This is even true when the genre is as limited as that of the 650 word college essay. This means not worrying too much about what other people are saying or what other people are doing. Yes, if you produce conventional essays that look and feel a lot like essays that have succeeded in the past, you can comfort yourself that no one will look strangely at you if you fail. You were just like every other successful person! But that’s kicking into the corner. To get the best results, speak for yourself most powerfully and truly. If that produces an odd essay, as long as that essay is true and as expressive of you as you can possibly make it, so be it.

And don’t worry. Many of you will end up getting accepted to college having submitted essays that are bog standard examples of the genre. Some of y’all just aren’t that interesting ;-p.

[1] A video of Ronaldo missing a penalty he kicked down the center – sometimes a keeper has a good day!

Justin Shelby