Oversharing of personal information hurts job or graduate school application, teacher-student interaction

Frank Bruni NYT columnWhen I read Frank Bruni’s “Naked Confessions of the College-Bound,” I knew what he meant.

Too much information.

Not too much information as in too many facts or statistics to make a decision. But the kind of too much information when a person discloses information that is – well, too much.

In Bruni’s commentary, he writes about the very personal information that some high school students include in their college essays, hoping to catch the attention of admission officers.

With the examples he provides, the students did catch the attention of the admission officers but not in a good way. The very personal narratives they wrote made the admission officers question their good judgment.

I find that kind of inappropriate candor — oversharing, as Bruni terms it — in some of my interactions with college students. Let me discuss three times when candor on personal situations can be too much information.

Class writing assignments

Some of the writing college students do has the same potential as the college essay for students to share personal experiences. You need to decide what is an appropriate personal story to tell.

Sometimes I think students select a topic that will have shock value. But more concerning is when students select a too-much-information topic and don’t realize that the topic is inappropriate for a class assignment.

In the introductory media writing class I teach, we sometimes ask students to write about a challenge they have overcome and what they learned from the experience. We make it clear in assigning the topic that the challenge selected should be appropriate to share in a work setting.

Most students get that kind of work-place clarification – but not all students. So we now add clarification, such as saying something like:

“You don’t want to write about really personal issues like getting caught sexting or being arrested. Even though those are big challenges, those are too personal to share in a class or work setting. You may not mind letting others know that personal information, but your teacher or employer may think such personal disclosure indicates that you lack discretion.”

Most of the time after we say that, students chuckle and shake their heads, like “Who wouldn’t realize that.” But not all students do realize that — even with that warning.

Sometimes, I’ll wind up having a conversation with a student who, in spite of those directions, writes on too personal of a topic. I hope those conversations help those students move to a better understanding of topics to discuss for school and work versus “naked confessions.”

Explaining absences or reasons for a late assignment

Many college classes have attendance requirements. For example, students may be asked to contact the instructor prior to missing class or asked to explain absences. (And this applies for employees, too, to a certain extent.)

I have had a number of students provide graphic details of intestinal problems or feminine health issues. Too much information!

Better to email or call saying that you are ill or not feeling well. You can provide more information or even a doctor’s note if requested.

If you have a serious personal situation that either means missing class or that may affect your performance in class, you do want to let your instructor know. At the University of Florida where I teach, a student can contact the Dean of Students Office about serious situations, and the office will contact the student’s instructors. That saves the student from having to contact multiple instructors to explain a death in the family or other personal issue.

Sometimes students email or talk with me about their serious situations because they want me to better understand what they are experiencing. A student’s boyfriend was killed in a random drive-by shooting. A student discovered the body of his roommate who had committed suicide in their apartment. A student was dealing with mental health problems. A student whose father was killed in a car accident.

Most teachers do want to know about those serious issues. Students need to decide how much to tell and how to share that information. An office visit is often best.

You need to decide how much of your situation to discuss and how to explain your situation. You may want to rehearse what you’ll say. Remember that telling your instructor (or employer) is different from telling a friend.

Including personal information in job or graduate school applications

Applicants for graduate school are asked to write a personal statement, and job applicants often write a cover letter as part of an application. Those provide the opportunity to talk about yourself – your goals, your experiences, your strengths and your weaknesses.

Again, beware of providing too much information – and inappropriate information.

You don’t want to be deceptive. Certainly, you don’t want to misrepresent your work experience or the degrees or certification you have earned.

But you don’t need to share that you are chronically late with everything you do, or that are working with a therapist, or that you really aren’t interested in this particular graduate school but that it’s a safe backup school.

I’m surprised when I read such personal information or candid comments in applications. I think: “Don’t you realize how this hurts your application?”

Apparently not.

Bruni, in his “Naked Confessions of the College-Bound,” talks about the “booming admission-counseling business.” High school students (actually, their parents) are spending $14,000 to attend an Admissions Boot Camp that helps them learn to write college essays.

Here are my three free-of-charge tips to help you with those graduate school/job application writing projects.

First, as you get ready to write the essay or cover letter, consider who you are writing to – typically people who don’t know you and will be forming their first impression based on your writing.

Second, consider your writing goal — to get admitted into graduate school or to get hired for a job. What is the impression that your writing will make? How will that help advance you toward your goal?

You may say, “But I’ll come across as clever or unique or totally honest.”

The justifications of the “naked confessions.”

But are those the most important qualities you want to convey for this very important writing? Probably not.

Your writing will be reviewed in comparison to dozens or hundreds of others. Catching someone’s attention with your writing may not be the best quality for the successful applicant or candidate.

And a good third step can be asking someone else to read your cover letter or personal statement. You want someone who can be a good critic of your writing – not someone who will read your too-candid explanation of a personal escapade and say you are so funny.

Those tips also can be used when selecting a topic for a class assignment or deciding what to say to an instructor about an absence or a late assignment.

Regardless of whether you are writing for a class assignment, a graduate school application or for a job application, having your writing reflect that you are a person of good judgment is always a good outcome.





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