A piece in which I say YES YOU CAN and tell you a story about my sour relationship with math.
Will My Weaknesses Work Against Me in My College Essay?
I had a parent reach out and ask if their kid was hurting their chances in their college essay by writing so articulately about their weaknesses. The answer is: no. Not if other ingredients are there.
To be articulate about your weaknesses, to reckon with them honestly and without self-pity, to show transformation in your character (as this student did), these themselves are strengths. (And also commendable qualities in grown-up people: I know many who still can’t do this without elaborate defenses, and yelping ego).
To also write well in the process, and think methodically? Well, these are prized traits in college admissions essays.
So I want to take a minute to experiment with writing about one of my weaknesses–starts with an M, ends with an H, and has AT in the middle. 4 letters. Guess it yet?
Not A Math Person: Weakness, or just Fact?
As some of you know who read my bio, have talked to me about it, or went there with me– I went to an Ivy League school. I’ll just get that out of the way. It had an open curriculum. Therefore, you could choose your own way through, according to the flexibility of your major. I skirted around math the whole way, and no one minded.
I was never a “math person.” I know we’re not supposed to type-cast ourselves, apply fixed labels, or trap ourselves in a locked safe with our limitations. And I would never do that to my students. But about me, it’s true.
Gold Stars vs. Arithmetic Tantrums: A Not-So-Cautionary Tale
I did once earn gold stars for my multiplication tables– but it was in part because the third grade math specials teacher was a terror. Her pedagogy included yelling sharply and loudly, like a Rottweiler defending its threshold, at students whose memorizations fell short. This ensured if they didn’t know their 9’s, they at least crapped their pants in school. She was an ageless old that I now recognize as probably 35.
After that, my math successes plateaued, then completely fell off. My math person potential crashed to a halt at the accomplishment of 144, which is 12 x 12. I went down with all my stars.
I was ok for a bit with division, but only a bit. The part I liked most about long division was the awning the numbers got to take refuge under– wasn’t that cute? Like a letter L that had face-planted, and the clever numbers found shelter as they awaited the verdict of who got how many and how many were left (see? I was always telling stories).
And also liked that it looked tidy, more like math hieroglyphics. The same could be said for elaborate equations, with multiple variables and symbols of calculus.
When I was in elementary, then middle, then high school, and– OK, just before COVID, reviewing the conflagration of my tax returns– my father would patiently sit with me with his yellow legal pads, and say, “Try again, just use more space to show your work.” He had trained to be an accountant, and was certain “more space” could dissolve all your emotional tsuris, as well as relative numerical incompetence, and maybe he was right. But I was willing to try curling up in a sobbing frustrated ball first.
Could that extra blank space provide, deus ex machina, the information I needed to get the correct answers? The Buddhists look at nothing to find the ultimate something. Could I do this with math? Create a new skill set, a math-brain, just by making space, the way looking at someone with good posture can make you stand up straighter?
See how much I believed, and still believe, my patient, generous dad?
During any one period of homework struggle, I would have at least four small (and occasionally large) meltdowns. Behind it was shame. I was smart enough; how was I missing this ability? He would just wait these tantrums out, as one must do, sipping coffee and holding out the pencil, paper, and trail of incorrect work I’d done so far.
Then we’d try again. This pattern went on and on, only looked and sounded different as I matured.
College Didn’t Cure All my Weaknesses Either!
Moving out of our apartment on the day of college graduation, four roommates and I did some long division to figure out the rent bill balance. We each got different answers. I had just secured an Ivy League degree that if you believe in pedigree or excessive pride, you frame (maybe I should have). And here we were, stumbling over fourth grade material.
It was the end of our collegiate education, and also the termination of our lease. We were still in our caps and gowns, a little champagne fizz lifting the hairs at our napes. The floor of that house was on a slant, and the toaster always set off the smoke alarm. I am going to blame those things for the skewed calculations. (The house, years later, caught fire). Our parents had had even more champagne than we had and were off premises. Like good students, we redid the problem. We were patient, and uniquely wrong. Eventually, someone got a calculator. There is always a solution, you just may not have found it yet. We paid the bill.
Befriending Your Weaknesses and Not Hating Your Family For Not Sharing Them
It’s not so bad, these days, as it was when I had math homework nightly. I do my accounting, and enter the expenses in my virtual ledger, and use all the calculators. I have an accountant to cross check me, but I enjoy the tabulations, because I see it as accounting for my life.
It turns out a lot of my receipts from bookstores, for tools used to teach and study, end in subtraction challenges: .37, .61, .89 and so on. When I get a math problem wrong, even problems of my own devising, paralysis can still set it, and the 3rd grade withholding of stars.
But I can tell you a good story about it- -and I think that’s my point. I like telling the story about it, especially the parts that hurt.
I don’t live among math-phobes; in fact, my current family is math-tastic. My husband and 5 year-old son do math to soothe themselves, and give their brain something to nosh on. My daughter (who’s now 2) points at all numbers and says, 1, 1, 1–but very excitedly (OK, at her age everything that’s not terrible is exciting). She’s getting there. My teenage stepkids do math for fun. FOR FUN.
My 5 year-old can already outpace my arithmetic on his abacus, where he adds six-digit numbers together. (He also has 1,205 unread messages in his school inbox. A numbers guy, he doesn’t know yet to look for, or be terrified by, that snow drift of email.) Numbers are just great things you can play around with, cool symbols to figure out. They don’t have personal implications. They don’t make you feel bad about yourself. His joy gives me joy. I can’t wait until he’ll help me with calculus, which I hear is more like poetry than any other substance.
I would like to give myself a math makeover, sure, but it’s probably never going to happen, because there are other things I want to do way more. And at this point, I don’t feel that bad about my weaknesses. When I tell you about them, with the goal of gaining perspective, I almost enjoy it.
Not that feeling of paralysis, though, attempting to show my work. Never that.
What to do about these weaknesses when you’re writing an admissions essay?
- It’s ok to write about your weaknesses. Just do it well, and show some transformation–not necessarily in the weakness, but in your relationship to it.
- You don’t have to be a perfect student in all areas to be interesting and compelling, but you do have to figure out your slant, your perspective.
- Ivy League doesn’t mean Olympian, and there are a ton of smarties who have never seen a leaf of ivy in their life, and they are not feeling sore or sad about it. In fact, many of them are doing incredible things. Remember that when you’re assessing yourself and your traits.
- It’s always great to aspire to your authentic goals, ones that align with your strengths, but you needn’t bear shame for your weaknesses. Seek help for the gaps. My empathetic dad can be reached at 917 XXX 1234. He’s potentially available to help you with your math homework, if you’ve found this article in error, while looking for a math tutor.
Worried you wrote about your weakness in the *wrong* way?
Fantastic, we got you covered so contact us for a review. We love helping students shift their perspective to see their weaknesses as part of their gifts, and talk about them appropriately and eloquently. Send us your draft, and we’ll help you get it right.