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There are no soft skills

Over the past 10+ years, my interest in college essays has led me through courses for counselors, teachers, and writers as I work to hone my skills and insight to help students one-on-one and in workshops. But frankly, I hadn’t planned or thought about workshops a while.

The idea of writing workshops takes me back to teaching writing to college students as well as running college essay workshops years ago. Then, this past week, a fellow consultant contacted me to run spring essay workshops for her after having seen my conference presentation, “Quantifying Value of the College Essay.” That prompted me to revisit, and perhaps finetune, the materials I give my students to get their ideas and reflections flowing.

My “Defining Qualities” page offers over 100 adjectives for students to ponder. I ask them, “What sounds like you?” “Think of a time when you…,” “What stories does your family tell about you” among many other questions. This page has been revised many times to make it less overwhelming (Do we need “smart” instead of “intelligent,” or “sharp” if we have “alert?”). Although every word on the sheet shows a deep value that a student may possess, there are roughly ten personality traits I chose to bold because I believe they will uniquely enhance a college community and relationships in general. These grab admission officers’ attention.

Our culture emphasizes the obvious ones I’ve bolded: “resilience” aka “grit,” “responsibility,” “resourcefulness,” and other task-related strengths. However, “humility,” “compassion,” and “empathy” are up there with other people-centric gifts as well. Some people consider these soft skills, but I don’t.

When I completed the Character Collective course a few weeks ago, it struck me how colleges seek students who take on the hard personal stuff--like being generous when there’s nothing in it for you--as well as the academic challenges like calculus. There’s nothing soft here. Spend twelve minutes and listen to Syracuse professor and award-winning author George Saunders’s 2013 Syracuse commencement speech on kindness. (I’m attaching two videos: one of the actual speech, which has some distractions, and one with a reading of the speech.)

As Saunders emphasizes, even for otherwise successful individuals, kindness is hard. That’s why it can stand out in an essay and support an application that boasts high rigor, GPA, and test scores. Essay writing and teaching isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it, and that’s a point I’ll drive in my one-on-one student meetings and essay workshops this spring.


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