How Ricky Bobby Helped Get a Kid Into College: Calculating Risk With College Essays

Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby in ‘Talladega Nights’
Copyright Sony Pictures

I had to chuckle today when Facebook reminded me of my post from 10 years ago. At the time I was working in a college admissions office as a member of the Admissions Committee and was in the midst of reviewing applications for admission. This was my post from April 22, 2010: “Still laughing over the application essay I just read. In response to ‘Describe something unique about yourself he wrote, ‘Basically I’m the best there is. No one can hang with my stuff, I mean, I wake up in the morning and I piss excellence.’ Let’s just say it’s a darn good thing that 1) I’ve seen Talladega Nights, 2) I have a good sense of humor, and 3) he got an A in calculus.”

I still remember this applicant. That’s worth noting. Essay readers read THOUSANDS of essays each year. They only remember a few. I should also add that this was not his entire essay. But the “Talladega Nights” quote really set the tone.

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One of my jobs now is working as a writing coach for teenagers in the midst of college applications. I can’t say I would have necessarily coached this student to take this risk. Broadly speaking, I discourage using the word “piss” on a college application. And while the college application is an appropriate place to brag about yourself I would generally advise doing so in a more measured manner.

And yet, I liked this kid. I offered him admission.

I share this story because I think it highlights a few things about the application and essay review process.

1. Sometimes colleges choose terrible prompts.

For the record, I hated that prompt. Very few applicants were able to dig deep enough to offer anything truly enlightening. We only got a few who “got” the prompt and told an interesting story of their heritage or upbringing that shaped them into who they were today. Mostly, we read about red heads, kids who had torn an ACL, southpaws, kids who could touch their tongues to their noses, and the occasional left-handed tuba player – none of which are actually that unique and none of which really highlight qualities important to success in college (unless the marching band needs a tuba player). So when this applicant quoted Ricky Bobby it caught my attention, not necessarily because it was a great response but because it was both not as terrible and more entertaining than most of what I had been forced to endure reading. It also gave me a little window into qualities that might serve him well in college.

2. Voice is important.

If you haven’t yet mastered how to share your voice in your writing, it would behoove you to do so. Readers appreciate applicants who write in their own, authentic voices. It’s refreshing to read an essay that sounds more like an applicant talking to you instead of one delivering a prepared speech.

3. Readers are real people.

If I hadn’t seen “Talladega Nights” and recognized the quote this could have gone in a totally different direction. You never know who will be reading your essays. It could have just as easily been another member of our committee who may have had a less-developed sense of humor than my own. I can think of a few people on the committee who would likely have been unable to get past the word “piss.” Some would have hated the movie and probably held an unconscious bias against him. Some would accuse him of plagiarism. But me… I laughed out loud. Different folks, different strokes. I’m not necessarily advising to always play it safe because you don’t know your audience, but you need to be aware of any risks you take and recognize them as such.

4. Readers may value different qualities.

I believe confidence and risk-taking are both important qualities in college students. This kid had both so it sort of “spoke” to me. I also really like smart kids with a good sense of humor. Someone else on the committee might have valued humility and intellectual curiosity more – qualities this essay eludes. It’s a bit unpredictable what might “speak” to different readers on any given day. Most importantly, though, make sure you use every essay to highlight a quality (a different one for each essay) that might be desirable in a college setting.

5. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

This kid had the goods academically to backup a risk on the essay. He was near the top of his class and presented an impressive résumé of activities and awards along with impeccable recommendations that spoke of his likability and sense of humor. A spectacular essay will never make up for a sub-par academic performance or application otherwise. Remember that. You’ve got to be in the ballpark with your grades and scores for anything else to even matter.

Bold? Yes. Risky? Absolutely. Smart? Not necessarily.

But it worked. Sometimes you have to take a calculated risk because, well, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

And now I get to chuckle at the thought that somewhere out there is a grown man who is telling stories about how he got into college by quoting Ricky Bobby and “Talladega Nights.”

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