This fall, one of my tutoring students taught me a lesson about how cheating on these essays can backfire–even if you don’t get caught.
He wanted to write his essay for the Common App on a trip he took to Guatamala to work with poor children. At one point, he confessed that he had not gone on that trip, but that his father had gone.
When I looked at him as though I thought he was nuts, he told me, in his defense, “I helped him pack!”
What? Are you kidding me?
This student kept insisting that he had no other interesting experiences that he could write about. (If you have read anything on my blog, you know that everyone has umpteen topic possibilities, and that you don’t need to travel the globe to have them.)
I gave him a brief lecture about how this was completely unethical, but he only smiled and told me that “all my friends are doing this.” (If this situation weren’t more complicated than I’m describing here, I would have booted him out on the spot.)
Finding the Life Lesson
in Your College Admission Essay
A key component of a powerful personal narrative (essay) is what’s called a “universal truth.”
They are also called “life lessons.”
Basically, when the writer starts to reflect upon the personal lessons learned from an experience, she or he needs to make sure to show why the lesson is important to everyone else as well—that is, why it is true on a universal level.
What is a universal truth?
Often, they are so “true” that they seem almost silly to say out loud.
Be true to yourself.
What goes around comes around.
Cheaters never win.
Never say never.
Sometimes you have to lose in order to win.
You can’t always get what you want.
Face your fears.
What goes around comes around(eg Karma).
You reap what you sow (you get out of life what you put into it).
(Try putting, “In life, …” before the universal truth to test it out.)
Read some sample essays and see if you can find the “universal truth.”
In your own college application essay, you don’t necessarily have to state the universal truth, however, at some point you should at least touch on it, usually toward the end.
If you need help getting started with your college application essay or personal statement, try my Jumpstart Guide.
As promised in my last post, I will share how I start the search for essay topic ideas for my son, who is a junior in high school. The idea is to get some general ideas on our college essay radar. Just jot down areas of interests, activities, experiences, idiosyncrasies, etc. When he’s in a receptive mood (ahem!), I will suggest that he start his own list.
My list so far, written in about five minutes:
Band: French horn
Jazz band: Trumpet
Boy Scouts: camp, backpacking, community service projects
Volleyball: switched from tennis: JV team.
His blog on unusual/ethnic restaurants
Summers in New Hampshire
Costa Rica/Panama/Mexico/Europe family trips
From our lists, my son can start to think about the more specific experiences he has had within these areas as he gets closer to actually writing his essays (probably this summer). What we are looking for, however, are not stories of his general achievement (The Time I Climbed Mt. Whitney or How My Science Invention Won First Place or My Mission Trip to Costa Rica), rather we want to find the smaller, simpler stories (within those events) where he was challenged in some way, and learned and grew from that experience. You will be looking for those memorable moments: “Remember the time you…?”
Meanwhile, just keep your list within reach and add things when they come to mind. Again, relax. There are great stories and essay topics hidden within this list, and they will be in yours, too!
I began this blog when my daughter was a junior in high school and starting her college application process. Like a lot of parents and applicants, I thought she needed some amazing experience in order to write a fabulous essay. The good news is that I was wrong! In fact, I have learned, and now preach, that the most mundane topics actually produce the strongest, most compelling essays.
Now, my son is a junior in high school. So here we go again. If it’s helpful, I will share how I’m going to try to help him with his college admissions essays. It’s never too early to start these, but the reality is most kids don’t get cranking on them until the summer before their senior year, and many wait until later than that. (As with all writing, deadlines can be the best motivators.) My advice to parents and students is to just start thinking and brainstorming about possible topics now, and jot down general areas of interest and experiences that you want to mine. I will do this for my own son and share the process with you in the next post. (You might find it helpful to scroll down my blog and read the entries regarding topics, so you have a better idea of what we are trolling for.)
Remember, don’t work yourself up into a tizzy over these. Everyone has interesting stories to tell. Do your best to keep the pressure and anxiety level low. These aren’t that difficult. They do get done. And most are really good!
A new client, who I will call Sarah, met with me for the first time to talk about topic ideas.
When I pressed her about her interests, her hobbies, her passions, she kept insisting that she was a well-rounded, strong student, but didn’t have any one thing that stood out about her.
It’s a common obstacle in writing these essays.
Students think they need to have climbed Mt. Everest or invented a better paperclip to justify a strong topic.
These students just need to slow down long enough to see what is right in front of them: the often mundane (ordinary; everyday), yet fascinating qualities, habits, goals or characteristics that make them unique.
I gave Sarah a few examples of this idea: the student who wrote about her wild red hair; the girl who liked riding the public bus system and used that to “show” her sense of adventure and openess to all types of people; the student who wrote a tribute to his TI-83+ calculator; the girl who wrote about her prowess as a karaoke queen.
After listening to these ideas, Sarah kept insisting she really didn’t have anything special to write about herself.
She thought for a few more minutes and then said quietly, “I smile a lot.”
I had only spent about ten minutes with Sarah, and I had noticed she easily broke into a wide, beautiful smile.
Sarah even smiled when she talked.
It was as though she couldn’t stop herself.
“My mom says I’m always smiling,” she added, smiling.
What a perfect topic for an essay.
Sarah’s constant smiling obviously was a big part of who she is, and all she had to do was explore what this meant to her, how it affected her relationships and experiences with others, maybe develop some metaphors to her smiling and life, and she had a makings of an engaging essay.
As with Sarah, sometimes the best essay topics are so close you don’t even see them. Just keep looking!
If you still don’t believe me about the power of writing about everyday topics for college admissions essays over those you think might impress your college(s) of choice, read this comment from a veteran college admissions counselor (this was posted in the comments section in response to an article called A Few Essays That Worked in the The New York Times‘ blog on college admissions called The Choice):
“I am often asked how to compose memorable application essays out of “ordinary” teenage lives. High school seniors who haven’t won international awards or lived on houseboats or in homeless shelters can feel as if their essays have little to offer. They’re terrified that they will make the same “mistakes” that are highlighted here in “The Choice” (and no wonder … even I–an admissions professional for three decades–had a tough time differentiating between the “good” and “bad” ones!).
I always reply that, during my 15 years of reading application essays at Smith College, many of the most memorable submissions were on mundane topics. One of my all-time favorites was about a laundry mishap at a summer school. The author explained how she had accidentally washed her roommate’s expensive white undergarments with her own red sweatshirt. Of course, the essay wasn’t really just about laundry … it was more about the boundaries of friendship. Other wonderful essays I recall include a hilarious one on playing in a truly terrible school band and another called “Why I Shop at Wal-Mart.”
While there are lots of books out there that serve up samples of “successful” essays, there are two that I especially like that offer helpful suggestions on how to craft your own. “On Writing The College Application Essay: Secrets of a former Ivy League Admissions Officer,” by Harry Bauld (which I’ve recommended for eons) and a newcomer called, “Concise Advice: Jump-Starting Your College Admissions Essays,” by Robert Cronk, both lead students through the composition process and never lose sight of the fact that 17-year-olds can rarely report triumphs—or traumas—that might help their essays stand out in a crowd.
Admission officials really DO want to read about their applicants’ experiences, no matter how “typical,” and they are eager to view them through the writers’ eyes. Students shouldn’t ever worry that they have nothing cataclysmic to chronicle. After all, what could be more “ordinary” than laundry?”
— Sally Rubenstone, Senior Advisor, College Confidential
Here’s a little book of essays written by graduates of Berkeley High School, which has a truly diverse student population and moves through about 700 seniors every year. (“As you will see from these stories, some live on their own, while others come from well-off families,” states the foreword.) And they all found compelling stories to tell about themselves. The essays, which targeted mostly California state schools, UCs and select private colleges across the country, were collected for this book by a savvy college counselor there named Ilene Abrams.
The book includes the name of the authors of each essay, along with what year they graduated and where they ended up going to college. It’s clear that these students were well-counseled in the process, since almost all the essays met the goal of their advisors: to tell a story “only you can tell.” The stories are rich in details, as diverse in topic, style and tone as their writers, and most tell some type of story. The best thing is that I believe they can help students see that they could write a similar essay!
In case you can’t read the title in the image: The Berkeley Book of College Essays: Personal Statements for California Universities and Other Selective Schools, compiled by Janet Huseby.
And I have to mention my own collection of stand out college application essays: Heavenly Essays.
From article in the New York Times:
June 23, 2009, 12:22 PM
As an inaugural post, Martha C. Merrill, the dean of admission and financial aid of Connecticut College, and a graduate of the class of 1984, encourages incoming high school seniors (with her Top Ten tips):
- Write about yourself. A great history paper on the Civil War might be very well written, but it doesn’t tell me anything about the writer. Regardless of the topic, make sure you shine through your essay.
- Use your own voice. I can tell the difference between the voice of a 40-year-old and a high school senior.
- Focus on one aspect of yourself. If you try to cover too many topics in your essay, you’ll end up with a resume of activities and attributes that doesn’t tell me as much about you as an in-depth look at one project or passion.
- Be genuine. Don’t try to impress me, because I’ve heard it all. Just tell me what is important to you.
- Consider a mundane topic. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that make the best essays. Some of my favorites have included essays that reflect on the daily subway ride to school, or what the family goldfish observed from the fishbowl perched on the family kitchen table. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event to be interesting and informative.
- Don’t rely on “how to” books. Use them to get your creative juices flowing, but don’t adhere too rigidly to their formulas, and definitely don’t use their example topics. While there are always exceptions, the “what my room says about me” essay is way overdone.
- Share your opinions, but avoid anything too risky or controversial. Your essay will be read by a diverse group of individuals from a wide range of backgrounds, so try to appeal to the broadest audience possible.
- Tell a good story. Show me why you are compassionate; don’t tell me you are. Show me that you have overcome great difficulty; don’t start your essay with “I have overcome great difficulties.”
- Don’t repeat what is already in your application. If you go to a performing arts school and all of your extracurricular activities and awards relate to dance, don’t write about how much you love dancing. Tell me something I couldn’t know just from reading the other parts of your application.
- Finally, don’t forget about the supplements. The supplement questions are very important – you should plan to spend as much time on them as you do on your essay. A well-written essay won’t help if your supplement answers are sloppy and uninformative.
3A. ESSAY: IN ORDER FOR THE ADMISSIONS STAFF OF OUR COLLEGE TO GET TO KNOW YOU, THE APPLICANT, BETTER, WE ASK THAT YOU ANSWER THE FOLLOWING QUESTION:
ARE THERE ANY SIGNIFICANT EXPERIENCES YOU HAVE HAD, OR ACCOMPLISHMENTS YOU HAVE REALIZED, THAT HAVE HELPED TO DEFINE YOU AS A PERSON?
I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.
I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.
Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.
I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.
I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.
I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.
But I have not yet gone to college.
Yes, this is a joke. Apparently, a guy named Hugh Gallagher wrote this for a writing contest.(more on Hugh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Gallagher_(humorist) ) Although his essay mocks the process of marketing yourself to colleges, this personal satire is compelling and readable–exactly what you want in your essay!!
Note his use of details, specific details. Instead of saying he cooks desserts, Gallagher writes he “cooks Thirty-Minute Brownies;” instead of just saying he was good at baseball, he said he was “scouted by the Mets;” and instead of saying he knows celebrities, he says he has “spoken with Elvis.” Also, see how he varies his sentence lengths to keep things moving foward. Try it!
BTW, Hugh ended up at NYU.
*And I have to mention my own collection of stand out college application essays: Heavenly Essays. It includes 50 narrative-style essays all written by real students who got into terrific school.
Here’s an interesting article by the Wall Street Journal about college presidents from 10 prominent colleges and universities (Reed, Carleton, Wesleyan, U of P, Barnard, etc.) who were asked by the newspaper to answer their own college admissions essay prompts. There’s something satisfying in that…
Click here to read article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124155688466088871.html
Roy Peter Clark was a famous writing coach when newspapers started directing their reporters to tell the news through a story-telling format in the late 70s and 80s, a genre called New Journalism and made famous by Tom Wolfe.
(The main difference between New Journalism stories and your college essays is that your stories are told in the first person, as opposed to the third person. It’s all narrative writing.)
Here’s a link to his 50 tips, and podcasts: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=78&aid=103943
My favorite tips, when it comes to writing college essays, are numbers 1, 8, 9, 10, 14, 20, 21, 22, 24, 32 and 34.
(With each podcast, Clark elaborates on the tip with examples and further insights–if you have the patience and are a good listener. I’m getting the book!)