"I got to have chocolate milk at lunch today!" my son told me the other day when I picked him up from summer camp. There is a certain triumphant excitement in a child's voice when he has successfully circumvented the draconian rules of home. "But I don't have it every day, just some days," he continued. My son, the reasonable. Do I still know you? I often wonder.

Remembrances of Chocolate Milk

When I was little, my mom used to let me make chocolate milk once in a while as a special treat. Maybe one of the best parts of being a parent is getting to chance to create special moments, even small ones.

I remember being about ten, playing Lunada Bay Little League. All the other kids in the dugout were eating sunflower seeds, hot dogs, or, of course, Big League Chew. What's more appropriate for kids than gum shredded to resemble chewing tobacco? Answer me that. My dad had gotten off work early and was able to come see the game. But when I asked him if he could buy me a hot dog to eat in the dugout, he said, "No." Reasonable, but I was disappointed.

Then, the next inning as I stood in center field, the ball came off the bat with a plink. My body fully extended, I managed a diving catch. I stood up, grass stains on my uniform, and tossed the ball back to the infield. There I see my dad, sitting in the bleachers behind home plate. He leaps up, raises his arms, and turns to the parent next to him: "That's it, I'm going to buy him a hot dog!" That is the best hot dog I ever had. Being a parent is the chance to give those special moments.

I could never quite predict those special chocolate milk moments my mom would give me. How did my mom choose which days were chocolate milk days? Based on whether I was having a bad day? Based on whether she was having a bad day? Or just because? On those days, I was allowed to pour my milk into the glass, add a couple big squeezes of Hershey's chocolate syrup, mix it all up with a spoon, and enjoy possibility. Possibility that lurking among the ordinary, the routine, and the mandatory are moments of contentment.

Chocolate Milk and the College Application

As I help families through the Common Application or the UC application or whatever it is, I'm always asking myself, "What's my role?" It turns out that the answer has a lot to do with chocolate milk. I'm convinced a college application is like chocolate milk. A student's GPA, SAT scores, AP classes, and hook are like the nutrients of the milk, and a student's essays and recommendation letters are like the flavor of the chocolate. A good application has both milk and chocolate. To make these good applications happen, there are two questions I like to discuss with families.

Question #1: How Nutritious Is the Milk?

The first question is, "How nutritious is the milk?" In terms of college applications, the nutrients that count are GPA, SAT, ACT, the number of AP classes, and, just as importantly, the hook. [For more discussion of the hook, please see my post How to Apply to Stanford.] We must examine the nutritional label with clear eyes, with vision unclouded by optimism, hope, or love. When we are realistic about the nutrients on the label, then we can develop a college list that maximizes a student's choices.

If there's one tendency I've observed in parents, it's the tendency to over-estimate how good their student's numbers are. That over-estimation leads them to push for more reach schools than is prudent, say 5 instead of 2. If you want to save yourself the money of hiring a college consultant to help with the college list, I have one very simple piece of advice: find good target and safety schools. Everyone can name 10 reach or dream schools, but those are only 2-3 schools on the list. You still need 8-9 target and safety schools. Instead of saying, "I don't have to worry about that because I'm getting into my dream school," take time to find good target and safety schools.

Question #2: How Chocolatey Is the Milk?

The second question is, "How chocolatey is the milk?" Colleges want their nutrients, but they want flavor, too. We all know students are more than just numbers. They are, like, actual people with actual personalities, you know? Flavor comes through in an application in two big ways: the essays, which you control 100%, and the letters of recommendation, which you do not. Sure, you can create a "cheat sheet" for your letter writers to make sure they remember any memorable moments, if they really love you, then you won't have to!

You still control how the essays reveal your personality, though. Probably 90% of the time you spend on college applications will be on the essays. Yet, hard though it may be to accept, the effect the essays have on the final admission result often doesn't measure up to the amount of time you've spent on the essays. What I mean is that no amount of chocolate syrup can make up for a lack of nutrients. It's not as if a great essay will add 100 points to your SAT score. That said, the essay can be a tiebreaker or tip factor if it comes down to you and some other candidate with similar numbers. How often that happens is anyone's guess.

But really, the reason to do a good job on each college application, including the essay, is just because "how you do anything is how you do everything." You do them to the best of your ability because you're not the type of person who would accept any lesser approach.

Free Chocolate Milk

You don't have to pay for chocolate milk. Every year, millions of high school students apply to college without paying someone like me. Guess what? They're all doing just fine! If you're going to take on the challenge by yourself, here are some tips for the road:

  1. Read my Where to Apply to College post to understand what a "balanced list" is.
  2. Use the Essaywise College Map to find 8-9 target and safety schools.
  3. Check out the Essaywise Story Tool and click "Shuffle" to get some quick essay topic ideas.


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.