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Common Application essay

Order the Pork

Order the Pork

Last weekend, I met up with some of my old PenHi classmates for Korean barbecue. The debate was about whether to go to Shilla Restaurant or somewhere else. "Shilla Restaurant has gone downhill since the olden days," James said, and he pointed out the 3.5 star rating on Yelp. But Dave was not swayed, and he made the call that Shilla was the place to get pork barbecue. That's where we went. As it turns out, most of the reviews don't tell the whole story.

Order Pork at Shilla Restaurant

Shilla ended up being a great choice. Yes, I understand I'm not Korean or Korean-American and therefore not in a position to judge Korean restaurants, etc., etc., but most of my friends are, so if they're good with it, I'm good with it.

At the end of the meal, each of us got to draw a ping pong ball out of a jar to win a prize. One guy won two coffee mugs. Another won a bottle of flower-scented body wash, which was just delightful. Another won a box of 12 bowls of instant just-add-water Korean noodles. I won two bottles of Starbucks Frappuccino. Just another reminder that doing a little more than expected can make a lasting impression.

But -- the food. The food was perfect. We only ordered pork. Lots of it, and it was delicious. One of my friends insisted that the bigger pieces of meat tasted better than the smaller pieces of meat that had been cut with scissors. At first I argued that it's ridiculous to say that the pieces tasted different based on how they were cut. The bigger pieces were more meat, but not better. Then he told me, "More is better," which is an irrefutable argument when it comes to Korean barbecue. Aside from the various cuts of pork, also delicious was the fried rice made on the grill. That crispy-crunchy rice that absorbs all the pork flavor and sticks to the grill, the kind you have to scrape off to eat, was a perfect final dish.

At some point, I turned to Dave and asked him, "How did you know this place would be good for pork?"

"JP, look at the walls," Dave said. "There are pictures of pigs everywhere. There is even a drawing of the different parts of the pig. You're not going to order the seafood."

Of course, he's right. It's completely obvious. Order the specialty. If you're going to Shilla Restaurant, don't order the seafood. Order the pork.

Application Essay Advice for Students

When you're thinking about the Common Application essay or the UC application essay, I want you to remember Shilla Restaurant pork barbecue. You get to choose what part of you -- what quality or experience -- you serve up to your reader. Serve up your best.

There are lots of things you could write about. But the only thing you should write about in your long application essay is your special strength. The thing people like or admire most about you. Your superpower. For example, my superpower is that I don't need to prove to you I'm right. When I set aside proving my point, I'm more open to hearing yours. Understanding you is, to me, more important to me than showing you how clever I might be.

So you're thinking that my superpower is mundane, lame, or basic. That's fine. That's true. I want to take the pressure off to portray yourself as some super person who really isn't you. Just find some quality you're proud of and write about that. If you're not sure what your superpower is, ask someone who knows you: "I need to write an essay about my best quality. What do you think I should write about?" Done.

Application Essay Advice for Parents

If you're a parent who's worried your child isn't moving fast enough on the college applications yet - basically, if you're like every parent I've ever talked to - fret not. You can help. Just probably not the way you think.

What most parents do is offer technical advice. This comes in the form of "Why don't you write about...?" or "Why don't you say it this way...?" The problem with technical advice is that it virtually guarantees the perpetuation of the prod-resist-procrastinate cycle. Parent prods student to work faster. Students resist, saying "I got this." (In parents' defense, the student is nearly always wrong in this assessment, but proving you're right won't really advance your cause.) Friction between parent and student increases. Energy that should be focused on doing the actual work is lost on fighting. Students procrastinate. That is why technical advice doesn't work.

How to Inspire Confidence

I have the solution. Just kidding. I have part of the solution. Technical advice doesn't work. What works is reassurance.

As parents, sometimes we need to pause. We're always going to be thinking about where we want our children to go next. That's natural. We want our kids to achieve whatever the maximum they can in this life. But sometimes, we have to spend a few minutes appreciating how far they've come. Also, we need to think about where a 17-year-old is in life. She is at a crossroads. Independent, but not fully so. Confident, but not fully so. An adult, but not fully so.

When is the last time we stopped to remember what it was like to be 17? It takes some effort. I can't even remember what it was like to have to hold my daughter's hand while she climbed the stairs, and that was only 1 year ago. Forget about remembering when I was 17. I do remember meeting Christa when I was 17, though. I have to write that down or I will get in trouble later when she reads this (Hi, Dear!).

If you can bring yourself to pause for a moment to think about where your child is in life now and how she got here, then you're ready to write your child a letter. Write about why you're proud of the person she's become. If possible, make sure you and your spouse, or you and any other close relatives, all write letters. Be as specific as possible about the personal quality you admire most in your child. Write about times you've observed that quality in action. They might be random little moments, but those are the ones that count.

For example, I admire that my son's stubborn desire to be happy. Even though I tell him he doesn't have to be happy all the time, whenever I ask him if he's tired, angry, sad, or happy, he always tell me he's happy, even if that's clearly false. Yesterday, when he finished his day at summer camp (Rolling Hills Country Day summer camp = awesome!) with orange popsicle stains on his camp shirt and just enough strength to trudge across the hot asphalt parking lot to our car, he insisted he was happy but not tired. He believes his defiance can conjure happiness into existence.

You need to write about your child's superpower. Then, at a time when you and your child are both relaxed, bring your letter. Read it to your child aloud, and hand it to her. Then wait. Take a deep breath. Don't fill the silence with sound. See what happens. That's it. Done.

This is something I try to do at the end of the application process with my students, after I get to know them, after I've seen them struggle to express themselves in their writing. I tell them what their superpowers are, and I encourage them to hold onto that as they start college. But as a parent, you don't have to wait. You can write that letter and have that conversation now to boost your child's confidence. And going through the writing process yourself will boost your own empathy, too.

One More Tip for Making the Process Less Stressful

Of course, we must be practical about procrastination, too. It's not unreasonable for parents to request and receive regular progress updates from your child about her college applications. But it is unreasonable to ask for those updates all the time, any time, whenever you feel like it. Plus, that will just start the prod-resist-procrastinate cycle.

My simple suggestion is to pick a day of the week (or if your schedule is regular enough, a certain meal or time) when you will check in with your child about the Common Application, the UC application, or whatever other application your child is working on. The deal is that you don't get to hound your child at other times, but at the appointed time, your child must give an honest assessment of what is going well and what isn't.

I Trust You

Everyone has the same goal. You and your child both want her special trait to shine through in the application, the same way Shilla Restaurant uses drawings of pigs on the wall to make sure everyone knows pork is its specialty. The biggest contribution parents can make at the beginning of the application process is not technical, like "Write about this" or "Say it this way." It's relational: "I'm proud of you, and I trust you."


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.