Adventures in Essayland

If you’re a rising high school senior planning to apply to college this fall, you more than likely will be dealing with application essays. The Common Application requires a “major” essay and many colleges that use the Common Application also throw a supplement your way that usually requires additional writing in the form of either another longish statement or a hit parade of so-called “short responses.” If you’re a strong writer, then you’re probably not too worried about generating all this original writing. However, if you’re a bit shaky about your compositional skills, the prospect of cranking out convincing verbiage may be causing you some stress.

Here are the Common App “personal statement” questions or “prompts,” as they’re often called:

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national or international concern and its importance to you.

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.

4. Describe a character in fiction, an historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

6. Topic of your choice.

When it comes to your “Reach” and “Realistic” colleges, essays can make a real difference, so choose your topics and your approach carefully. The best essays help you to stand out in a crowd and reveal who you are and how you think. Sure, you can write a good essay about anything, but an essay often has the most impact if it highlights something that is unique or unusual about you.

So, in light of all that, I thought I would offer you a bit of wisdom about how to approach and execute (“Dave, did you have to use the word execute?!”) a “major” essay. The following example comes from a real-life essay client of mine. She has given me permission to use one of her essays as a teaching example and I have obfuscated her personally identifying details.

In “Emma’s” Common App essay (which falls under the “Topic of your choice” prompt), what starts out as an ominous tale of suspense, turns into a redeeming comedy of errors. At first, we don’t know what kind of mayhem Emma is contemplating, and we expect the worst when she pulls the trigger. However, it all turns out to be something like one of those umbrella rifles that clowns use. We can almost feel a big sense of relief when we realize that this is a fun essay rather than a tragic one. Here’s what Emma wrote:

It was past midnight on Christmas day and I was holding a gun. I couldn’t concentrate on what I was doing anymore. The clock’s second hand ticked louder and my eyelids grew heavier as my contacts rubbed like sandpaper against my bloodshot eyes.

Finally, out of pure frustration, I pulled the trigger. But nothing happened. I was out of glue. Hot-glue guns were like that. I squinted at the floor, littered with tape, glue droppings, wood, broken blades, and so much other stuff that I could hardly find a place to step let alone find another almost-invisible, clear glue stick. I asked one of my class team members to help. The response was an irritated insult from a weary-eyed creature who once was my friend.

This was but one more chapter in the bitter saga known as “The Rube Goldberg Project.” It was the first time that any of us had tried to build a machine. At first I didn’t think it would be too hard: Just make a contraption of some sort, using as little money as possible, which could move a marble for at least one minute and no more than twenty minutes. Whatever team’s machine came closest to either one minute or twenty minutes received the highest grade. It was a deceptively simple challenge.

We didn’t waste any time getting started. Lani, a senior and veteran of past Goldbergs, warned, “Don’t procrastinate; you’ll never finish.” Armed with those words of wisdom, we rushed to MJ Designs for our supplies the same day that midterms ended. I even bought paint to decorate our project for extra points. We had no idea the misery that awaited us.

We spent many days endlessly fixing our project and snapping at each other. Finally, one night our friendships fell apart. Jen argued with Karen over the phone for leaving our project to attend a church event. As the bickering and yelling got louder, I just wanted to hide in my closet, but for some reason I didn’t let myself collapse into tears. Bending my sore back, I dutifully continued to saw away at a large block of wood. Then, suddenly, the door swung open and Jen ran out of the room, tears streaming down her face. After a long, awkward silence, I explained that it wasn’t Karen’s fault that she was not going to make it back from church in time. We couldn’t let this stop our work. I looked around, picked up the saw, and continued working. Seeing me work, the others started to work too.

I tried to serve as the bond in our group, holding our friendship and our project together. At times, it frustrated me because we buckled so easily, but I was determined that we would succeed and, indeed, we did. We built a “Lost in Space” machine that moved our marble for more than twelve minutes. It involved a staircase, a conveyor belt, and incline planes—a thing of intuitive beauty. Mrs. Killinger, our physics teacher, was so impressed that she awarded us the highest grade in our class.

The grade turned out to be of secondary importance. Mrs. K and our classmates appreciated our hard work, tears, and determination. That’s what made it all worthwhile to us. I realized that sometimes, no matter how hopeless things may seem at the moment, as long as I am willing to hang in there for just a little longer, the hard work usually pays off. Tenacity is a virtue . . . which helps when cleaning glue guns too.

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Here’s a great tip for starting your essay: Put your best efforts into your lead. You get one chance to draw your readers into your writing. Don’t put them to sleep. Notice too how Emma ties everything up at the end by bringing the focus back to the gun—the glue gun. She wraps her essay around the virtues of tenacity (a.k.a. “never give up”). It has a nice symmetrical structure, kind of an A-B-A form with plenty of variety and personal insights along the way. This scene is all too common among high school students scrambling to finish a project, but Emma makes it come alive with her lively writing and careful structuring. Great essay.

By the way, Emma was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m sure that the admissions staff there got to know a bit about Emma from her writing. So, the lesson here is to think outside the box and from inside your heart and mind. As always, remember: Don’t write what you think they want to hear; write what you want to say!

We’ll look at some other essay examples in future posts.

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