When I was applying to Brown (and 14 other colleges because I’m crazy), I wrote and rewrote a shitty essay over and over ad nauseum, trying to sound like the perfect candidate, like some teenaged prodigy and world-shaker in the making. I included all sorts of B.S. that looking back makes me cringe to think about, how fake it all sounded. But at the time, I thought that’s what you had to do: drop names of impressive books you’ve read, exhibit a laundry list of achievements, practically begging admission to the elite schools.
And because I am who I am, I waited until the last minute to send in my applications online to 9 of the schools through the Common Application, including Brown and Cornell, Vassar, Middlebury, and so on. (Note: I do not recommend this kind of recklessness.)
As luck would have it, I totally neglected to read the instructions.
I had written my first essay with the name of one of my schools, “Bard,” sprinkled throughout the essay thinking I could just personalize it for each school. It turns out that once you submit the essay, that’s the only one that gets sent to all the schools.
So having worked tirelessly on my application, the last day to submit finally came around, and I polished up some of the details, did some last-minute copyediting, and hit submit, feeling relief, at having completed the daunting college application process. I lazed around the house for a few minutes until I came back to my laptop and glanced at the application window that was open on my browser again only to realize past the deadline that I had sent the wrong essay to almost every school.
Upon realizing my grave and ridiculous mistake, I immediately fell into a heap of wails and pseudo-hyperventilation on the floor of my bedroom, certain that I’d lost my shot at getting accepted into a good school and thereby having the future I wanted until my mother, alarmed by the dire noises from my bedroom, came to my side, calmed me down and got me to my senses.
I proceeded to email each school praying they wouldn’t immediately flag my application for the garbage pile for my stupid mistake. Luckily, each of them reassured me that I could simply resend my essay.
That’s when some inexplicable, rebellious voice told me a crazy thing.
I suddenly had this urge to completely scrap the essay I’d worked on for weeks and weeks to the point of verbatim memorization, only to write a completely new essay. This time, from the heart.
So that's exactly what I did.
I sat at my computer, opened a new Word Document, and ignored every idea I had about what kind of essay I was supposed to write, instead writing what I had been wanting to say to these colleges all along.
I told them I cared about development. I told them I grew up with my mother, just me and her, and that I wanted to build a great life for us. I told them that there were parts of my application and my transcript that weren’t perfect—but that if they were looking for someone to take their education and make a great life and a contribution to society with it, that I was 100% that girl.
I spoke with conviction and, admittedly, complete audacity, not caring whether I sounded delusional because I knew in my heart that I belonged at a school where everyone was lit up with excitement about learning, where education was an end in and of itself, where growth and meaningful impact were the ultimate values.
I didn’t feel like I needed to beg to be let in, because I wasn't in it for the prestige or the financial security of a brand name school. I simply wanted to join a community of people as nerdy, thirsty for change, hungry to learn, and as driven by curiosity as I had always been.
And I let this come through in my essay. I wrote a “meta-essay,” describing in full detail the grueling, roller-coaster process of how I wrote my first essay and how it just never fully sat right with me. I told the story of how what I’d wanted to say all along was different, simpler, more honest.
And most importantly, I acknowledged and directly answered the one question that colleges really want to know when they ask you for all the grades, essays, and achievements they ask you for, which is not “What have you done?” but rather, “What will you do with the resources and the world-class learning environment we can provide you with? Will you accomplish something great?”
Colleges don’t care about what you’ve done. They only ask about your past achievements because they are the surest indicator of what you’re going to do.
So I decided I’d make it easy for them. I promised them that, yes, I would take my education and my college experience, and I’d go on to make some sort of big and meaningful impact in the world, someday and somehow. And this implied that I’d exalt their name in the process (reputation is everything to these schools, after all).
The essay practically wrote itself; the words just flowed. There was none of the forcing, the writer’s block, the agony of the first essay-writing process with this new one, because it was simply the most direct expression of my no-bullshit honest truth.
I finished the essay, gave it a quick read-through, made damn sure I didn’t include the names of any of the schools, and emailed it over to each school, one by one.
To this day, I like to think that the ballsy, honest and utterly sincere approach I took in my essay is what was the deciding factor in my getting into all the schools I managed to get into. It certainly wasn’t the “C” I got in art my freshman year in high school, or the time I got called to the dean’s office for forging all of my mom’s signatures to skip my first period class my senior year (yeah, I know… not your typical A-student).
I’ve used this “tactic" in other pivotal times in my life, too.
The most valuable internship I’ve ever had, the one at Red Antler, came through my persistence and heartfelt outreach when I didn’t get a response the first time around. I got a job at Google because I conducted myself with total sincerity in each of the six (!) interviews, uncertain if I could ever make the cut but with the resolve to at least fully be myself so that I could let my passion and personality shine through.
So the takeaway? Be real. Don't be so "professional" and buttoned up that you can't say what's in your heart and why you really want that job or that opportunity.
Sincerity is the best hustle.
Chase after what you want, and do it with total realness. People can sense the authenticity you’re putting into something, and this puts you in a position of declaring your commitment and heart, which is valuable in itself—instead of begging at the door to be let in.
I promise that this will open doors faster than only following "the rules" ever could.