That College Essay on “A Million Little Things” isn’t Getting You into Yale
Writing About Someone Else is a Common Mistake Students Make
Last week’s A Million Little Things finds the characters, for the most part, in a good place as high school senior, Tyrell, narrates that “Relationships of all kinds are gifts and have to be handled with care.” The ending sequence is feel-good television at its best as his words highlight and heighten the various characters' emotional journies. The problem is the words are from his Yale college essay, which has little to do with the actual applicant — Tyrell.
Tyrell’s essay certainly delivered all the feels. He wrote it about Rome, the man who’s welcomed Tyrell into his home after his mother was deported. He is the first father the teenager has known, and Rome has been through it lately, suffering a recent bout of depression. So, the heartwarming words about him are exactly what Rome needed to hear. Again, the problem is that Rome isn’t the one trying to go to Yale — Tyrell is.
The point of a college essay is to open a window into a student’s unique character so admissions officers can picture that student in their academic community. Working as a college essay writing instructor, I often see students make the same mistake Tyrell did, focusing their essays on someone else. I get that they want to write about a parent, grandparent, sibling, or mentor who made a huge impact on their lives. However, an essay that tells me all about Rome’s powerful journey as a Black man struggling against the stigma of mental illness but does nothing to help me picture who Tyrell is or remember him out of hundreds of other students… Problem.
This isn’t to say a student can’t write about someone else in their college essay. A few years ago, I had the honor of working with a young woman whose brother was killed in a drive-by shooting on their shared birthday. Going over her draft, I grew concerned that her essay focused on her brother and what happened to him, but did little to reflect the vibrant, intelligent, hilarious young woman who sat before me.
I didn’t want to discourage her from writing about her brother and how much his death, which happened shortly after moving home to get his life back on track, drove her academically. She strove to graduate high…