Thanks for joining us as we continue with Staying Sane through the College Essay Writing Process, an ongoing series that offers college applicants and their parents advice on how to stay on track for completing Ivy-worthy essays…without flying off the handle. Enjoy this next part of the series, and STAY SANE!
Sit down with your parents or the friends and other adults you have chosen to help you, and ask them what comes to mind about you for each of your chosen topics. Jot those ideas down. In a day or two, re-read your brainstorming and clustering, as well as the list of others’ ideas and honestly assess where you are interested to know more about the topics you have come up with. When you have identified the one that you inherently feel most interested in — just because you feel that way — you are ready to commit to that one for the essay. If you are writing to find out more about your experience because it interests you, you are bound to write a more interesting essay than if you are going through the motions just to get what seems the right thing to say on the page. The poet Robert Frost is often quoted as saying, “If there is no discovery for the writer, there will be no discovery for the reader.” It’s the same with you and the college admissions committee –if they can track the way the applicant has used their question for honest self-reflection and reexamination of events, they will feel moved, interested, and excited. These are the qualities in an essay that make it matter and introduce you the candidate beyond grades, SAT scores, and other statistics.
Your topic doesn’t have to be the most earth shattering or amazing experience — it has to be about something that matters to you and engages you, something you are interested in telling about, exploring a bit further than you have and learning from as you write. It has to allow you to really show what life is like for you.
Here’s an example: A candidate wants to become a fashion editor for a national magazine. She has worked on her school’s yearbook two years in a row, as assistant editor and editor-in-chief. She has also participated for years in a fund-raising, long-distance bicycle ride because her parents were active in the organization that was raising the funds to benefit medical research on a disease that took the life of a local boy. What interested her most about her experience was the way her classmates took to her redesign ideas for the yearbook (based on IPod advertising style), turning out for the yearbook club in record numbers, and how much of the town turned out to raise funds by supporting the bike riders. After some thought about how these two activities could support her interest in becoming a fashion editor, she realized that what was important to her was mobilizing numbers of people and having an impact. She began to see fashion magazine editing as a way to reach great numbers of people globally and to foster green manufacturing, development of industries in impoverished areas, and interest in global child labor laws. She saw her high school experiences as training for joining important clubs in college and for obtaining the internships that would help her connect with the industry she wanted to be a part of to make a difference in the world by using her talents and interests. As a consequence of writing her essay, this candidate saw herself as directed, purposeful, and ready for new challenges.
Another candidate most enjoyed the work she was doing part-time at an early childhood education center. Although she didn’t want to become a teacher, she was learning much about educating herself and others from the teacher for whom she was working as an aid and from the center’s children in terms of how they learned. By writing about this experience and the insights she gained concerning learning, she was able to discuss how she would approach her higher education — with joy and appreciation, by helping peers, and by extending learning from one area into other areas. She drew a compelling portrait of herself as an exciting student and contributor to the education of those around her.
A third candidate was the child of a father who’d come from India and a mother who was an American Jew from the Midwest. The couple had met at school in California. The family had very recently all gone to visit the father’s extended family in India. It was the first trip the candidate had made to India, as her father had always gone alone while she was growing up. Although she attended a Jewish high school and had never actively identified with her Indian heritage, now that she’d met her father’s family and lots of cousins, she could see traits in herself that came from her father’s upbringing and that merged very nicely with the traits she’d inherited from her mother’s family and traditions. She was excited to see this blend and eager to bring what she was learning about her background to college where she wanted to major in Jewish studies, but combine activities in East Asian clubs with her studies.
One more candidate was the middle of three sisters. Her older sister was suffering from manic-depression and she was the one who had to tell her parents that her sister was cutting herself despite psychiatric help. When her sister was hospitalized and her parents spent much time visiting her, the candidate had to baby-sit her little sister, tend to house chores, and do her homework and study for tests, all while she was worried about her sister and feeling badly that she had had to be the one to inform her parents. As she wrote, she realized just how much she had learned about her own need for close friends and mentors during this time when she felt like hiding the family truth. The essay was a moving testimonial to the way peers and teachers and bosses matter in helping individuals maintain a life of their own when family problems threaten to overwhelm them.
A male student who didn’t know what to write about, recounted a funny line going around school about him. It was a take-off on his name that people enjoyed chanting so much that even teachers and students who didn’t know him were familiar with the chant. Because so many people at school were asking who this person was, he had to ask himself who he thought he was. The resulting exploration of his values and ways of demonstrating them made a very good essay.
So, writing down what comes to mind and trying to see how what comes to mind goes with the application questions helps you learn more about what you know about yourself, what you want out of life, and how you’ll contribute to others. This kind of self-knowledge, supported by specific experiences, shows the admissions committee what your abilities, talents, and interests are, as well as what kind of a person you are. Your writing allows you to appear real and believable.
By Sheila Bender, former Accepted.com editor and founder of Writing it Real, a “community and resource center for writing from personal experience.”