To give you some additional real-world perspectives, I’m including here more representative essays from my student archives. I’ll make some background comments about the writers (obviously, names have been changed for privacy), comment on their essay, and throw in some tips about the essay process.
Let’s look at the case of Marianne Park, who attended the University of Pennsylvania. She is an Asian-American from the southwestern United States. Marianne moved to America as a very young girl, learned English, and attended a competitive public high school. Here, in her own words (in response to a follow-up from me), is a description of some of her college-process details that she went through back then:
“I applied to the University of Pennsylvania Early Decision, and was accepted. I am currently attending Penn. I also applied to Berkeley, Duke, Rice, Yale, Washington University in St. Louis, and University of Texas at Austin. Since I applied early to Penn and was accepted, I had my applications withdrawn from those other schools.
“As for my progress, I am doing surprisingly well. If you would like to know, my GPA so far is a 3.84. I also have a job as a research assistant with a professor at Penn’s medical school along with other activities and clubs. I love Penn! I’ve met the most interesting people; some even came from India and Africa!
“I did learn something about the college application process though. I realized that the most important part of the whole application was the essay. No matter how high your GPA or SAT scores are, a bad essay can make or break you. I had a friend who was Valedictorian of our class and made 1500 on her SAT. She was rejected from almost all the schools she applied to. She was extremely confident and didn’t feel like she needed to work very hard on her essay. She didn’t realize that the most important part was the essay.
“I knew somebody who worked in one of the Ivies’ admission offices. She told me that sometimes, it’s all about the essay. She has seen people get in based solely on one quality essay. I also want to let high schoolers know that even though it may be extremely disappointing to be rejected from “Dream U,” it is not because you are not good enough. Sometimes absolutely smart and talented kids just slip though the cracks. The admission officers are aiming to build a class, and not out to get you.”
Excellent wisdom from Marianne. Now, let’s take a look some of her essay writing.
Here is one of Marianne’s Penn essays. In discussing essay possibilities with her, I encouraged her to accent her heritage, perky spirit, and obviously good sense of humor. She chose to bring out these elements in a statement that reflects her respect of family, cultural tradition, and some of those awkward moments from our youth that we’d rather forget. As you read her words, you can almost picture Marianne in the midst of the scenes she paints. This is quality writing.
I reached for a fish ball (my favorite), wedging the chopsticks tightly between my fingers. I felt a little clumsy leaning toward that center dish. The dinner wasn’t all that formal, but I was trying to make a good impression. Then suddenly, my hand-eye coordination failed.
Ten pairs of eyeballs watched in horror as my precious little fish ball squirted out the side of my sticks and bounced onto the table. In what seemed like one of those slow-motion dream sequences from the movies, I watched the little sphere leave a telltale trail of sauce as it rolled determinedly toward the table’s edge. I tried to be cool. “No big deal,” I thought, as I quietly tried to scoop it with my chopsticks. When that failed, I tried a stab, which only pushed it farther away.
I quickly tried to cover my embarrassment by plastering a bright smile on my ever-reddening face. My father, who was witnessing this dining mini-drama, deftly secured the little ball and, with skill and grace, deposited it into my bowl. “Hmm,” he muttered with a sigh, “’Can’t even use chopsticks.” A woman next to him joked, “A Chinese girl who can’t use chopsticks?!” Other guests bit their lips, trying to suppress their laughter. As I pondered this unlikely scene, I couldn’t fault their amusement. After all, it was remarkable how un-Chinese I had become.
My friends call me “Banana Girl”: Yellow skin on the outside and white on the inside. At times, I think I’m not Asian anymore, such as during the fish-ball incident. A while ago, my mother sagely predicted that it wouldn’t be long before hamburgers and pizza would be a big part of my diet (they already represent two of my four daily food groups). “No problem for me,” I said. I was okay with that. “Nothing wrong with being ‘Americanized’,” I thought. What people don’t understand is that, although I am well adapted to America’s culture, I still greatly respect Chinese traditions.
When my great-grandmother died this past summer, we couldn’t attend her funeral due to financial difficulties. Her death was unexpectedly sudden. So, out of respect for her and our Chinese heritage, we created our own funeral ceremony at home. My mother and I went to our local Chinese market and bought a number of items made of paper (aprons, plates, and other household goods). We even got some Chinese paper money. Then my mother got out her large cooking pot and we went into the back yard and put all the paper items (even the money) into the pot and began burning them.
Chinese, especially the Cantonese people, believe that after a person dies, they move on to another life where they still need practical things like money and clothes. The only way the dead can receive these items is if their relatives gather and burn them, sending them into the air as smoke. After we completed the ceremonial burning, we prepared a feast in remembrance of my great-grandmother. This meal is a kind of symbolic “last supper” with the deceased.
I find the tradition both elegant and comforting. As part of the ceremony, I held up three burning sticks and bowed toward the flaming pot. It was a way to say goodbye and pay respect. Technically, it doesn’t make much sense because I bowed to the pot, not to my great-grandmother. I didn’t think it was weird at all. I understand and respect that tradition. It is intended to assure that the dead are well provided for. I understand that many traditions aren’t logical. It doesn’t matter to me, though, because I embrace my Chinese heritage.
I’m pretty sure that I’ll probably never master the skill of picking up food with two wooden sticks. In fact, I greatly prefer knives, forks, and spoons. Throughout my cultural transition, though, I’ve learned that adapting to one culture hasn’t “erased” my original identity or my traditional background. I am blessed to have had the advantage of living in and understanding two vastly different cultures. I’m certain that that this diverse perspective will not only help me adapt to the challenges of college life but also bring an element of difference and freshness to my future college friendships. Please remember one thing, though: If fish balls are ever on the dining hall menu, just hand “Banana Girl” a fork!
The lesson here for essay writers is to look around your everyday lives carefully. Scenes like those immortalized here by Marianne happen all the time. The key to success is mustering the writing skills necessary to articulate these little dramas, elevating them to the status of a significance window into who you are and how you think.
Keep a journal in which you make notes of interesting happenings such as the “fish-ball” dinner party. When it’s time to write your college application essays, you’ll have a treasury filled with all kinds of real-life anecdotes waiting to be turned into winning essays just like Marianne did.
Here’s a quick example of what goes on between an editor and a writer. This young man, Daniel Buckner, is from a small town in Indiana. This essay was part of his Early Decision application to Yale. Dan was deferred, although his Yale admissions office contact told him that he was a “strong deferral.” Back then, Dan was awaiting his April letters not only from Yale but also from Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Chicago. He had already been accepted to the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
In the example below of an email exchange between us, Dan sent me his revised essay draft (in italics below) and posed some questions (in bold brackets), which I answered (in non-bold brackets preceded by asterisks). This is (or should be) a typical exchange between an essay writer and a writing coach/editor.
She looks at me through the glass. She is as curious about me as I am of her. She cocks her head and looks into my eyes. Her eyes ask me, “What is your life like? How do you view the world?” [passions aren’t explicitly included in the essay so I changed the phrase] My eyes reply, “I think you know.” [is this last line good? or could it be changed into something more glib?]
***[Dan, I like the ambiguity of “I think you know.” It establishes a kind of abstract communion between you and the deer, which you develop further on in the essay. That ambiguity also creates interest and positive tension for the reader who, even at this early stage in the essay, should be drawn into the content. I don’t think you should change it.]
I love to sit at the kitchen window and watch the feeding deer come right up to the house at dusk. There is something about watching them in their natural environment that is magical, peaceful, and equalizing. For the most part, they are unaware that I am spying on them, but sometimes a doe breaks off from the herd and ventures near the kitchen window where I sit. We make eye contact, and we connect.
As our eyes meet, I am flooded with a view into the deer’s life that I try to hold onto as long as possible. Her big brown eyes (like mine) bespeak happiness, sadness, hope, despair—everything. At once, I see her as a fawn pawing a lazy toad in a wildflower field. I see her first hard winter when she has to pick through thick ice to reach the bark of a sapling oak for food. I see her finding an apple-tree treasure chest on a panting-hot Summer day.
I am forced to think of my own life. I think of the bad times: the lousy baseball games I’ve played, my parents’ divorce, the prejudicial stares in the grocery store [this example may leave a bad impression, but it is a part of my life]. But I also think of the good times: getting my driving license, finally figuring out the many tricky parts in Jimi Hendrix’s songs on guitar, 18 years with my mom.
***[The “prejudicial stares” comment is fine. They’ll understand this.]
Although the deer’s perception comes through instinct, her eyes tell of an implicit curiosity about the world she lives in. A glance into her brown whirlpools tells me that, as a fawn, she loved to wander away from her mother, pouncing after springtime moths and examining beaver-felled trees, always wondering why things are the way they are. Why is the elk’s hoof print so large? Why does the blue jay always sing that annoying song? As the sight of another person’s yawning will arouse one to yawn himself [ugly simile. I feel I need a transition that is like a transmutation of her questions into mine], her questions arouse my questions: What does Ivan represent in The Brothers Karamazov? Why do positrons have no mass? Why do I always put my tee shirt on backwards before breakfast?
***[How about something like: “Why does the blue jay always sing that annoying song? Her quizzical innocence gently spurs my own reflections: What does Ivan represent . . .”]
There are so many questions that never seem to stop, but I have a thirst to answer them. My imagination constructs homemade hypothesizes that attempt to explain why the keystone holds an arch together in the county courthouse or why my fingernails grow slowly in the summer. In my imagination, I travel far beyond rural Indiana, examining arches in Roman aqueducts and conducting nationwide surveys on fingernail growth. Oak leaves and Monet prints in the bathroom take me to the edge of the universe . . . [reader may not be able to infer that the leaves and paintings cause questions. I would like to keep it because I think it is a good transition into the ending.]
***[For your transition sentence, perhaps something like this might work better: “Even our bathroom’s oak-leaf wall covering and small Monet prints take me, transfixed, to the edge of the universe.”]
A loud farm truck, just beyond the patch of forest where a primitive dirt road lies, disturbs the sunset’s peace. The doe snaps her head in the truck’s direction, then runs the other way. Her whitetail’s flag bounces and disappears like a candle losing its flame on a breezy windowsill. I turn my head, look at the kitchen clock, and realize how long I’ve been lost in thought, gazing at the doe. Apollo is finishing his daily flight [the cape thing seemed trite, but Apollo might be pretentious], and now there is work to be done. Never, though, do I feel that I have wasted time with my deer. I know they’ll be back one day. One will break off, and we’ll connect again.
***[The Apollo reference seems out of place or at least hard to understand. How about some thing along these lines: “I turn my head and look at the kitchen clock and realize how long I’ve been lost in thought, gazing at the doe. My soul returns to earth. Now there is work to be done. Never, though . . .”]
***[The sentence, “My soul returns to earth” brings closure to your imagination’s trip “to the edge of the universe.” It also creates a parallel to the truck startling the deer. That is, the clock brings you back to reality. So, then, you have created two loops and closed them: (1) the deer ponders nature instinctively and is startled back to self-preservation, and (2) the deer inspires your intellectual ponderings and the clock clips your imagination’s wings.
Quite honestly, Dan, there’s a lot of subtle stuff going on in this essay. Again, I’ll predict that it will stand far above 98% of the drivel admissions officers have to read. In musical terms, your essay reminds me of a Brahms Intermezzo. It’s simple and beautiful on the surface, but there’s a heck of a lot of art going on underneath. I wouldn’t mess with this much more. Too many tweaks may spoil the impact.]
Keep up the great work!
As the graphic above states, “College essays are about telling a story.” I hope you can see what that means when you read Marianne’s and Dan’s essays. They don’t read like a history report or some stiff journal article. I’ve said this many times before over the years and I’ll say it again today …
When it comes to college application essays, don’t write what you think your readers want to hear; write what you want to say!
Next time, we’ll explore some more real-world essays for your edification. Read, heed, and succeed!
Be sure to see my other college-related articles on College Confidential.