Sunday, October 19, 2008
All About You
So it’s time to write your college application essay. It’s time to tell the world what is inside of you, namely all of the nuances, hidden talents, capabilities, and strengths not revealed in your SAT score, your grade point average, your list of extra-curricular activities, or your near mastery of the ukulele.
It’s time to write about you—the you nobody knows and should know, the you that will soar and fly through the halls and student unions of a college you have chosen to live at and study in while paying exorbitant fees and running up substantial debt.
It’s all about you. And at this moment, in this essay, the focus should be nowhere else.
In her essay entitled “On Keeping A Notebook,” Joan Didion writes that “We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves…(‘You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it,’ Jessica Mitford’s governess would hiss in her ear on the advent of any social occasion…).”
The best advice I can give you about feeling self-absorbed and egotistical when writing this particular essay is to get over it. You are the star of this piece, and if you do not seize the moment, you most likely will not be going to the college of your choice, or possibly it will be your second or third choice.
How it feels to be you, to experience what you have experienced, to gaze reflectively at your navel—those are the most important aspects of this gig. A certain amount of self-absorption will be necessary and required.
Writer David L. Ulin told a class of students once that writing is an arrogant act. You are grabbing the reader by the lapels and demanding that he listen to what you have to say. You are taking away his time, the minutes he will never get back again, and forcing him to read your thoughts. So you’d better have something worthwhile to say.
First, let’s look at a sample prompt from a college application essay, in this case, the University of California application.
“Describe the world you come from—for example, your family, community or school—and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.” This prompt is for all freshmen applicants.
The second prompt is for all applicants. “Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?”
These kinds of prompts are common in college applications. They are usually looking for an experience you have had that has influenced your life or changed your perspective.
Now let’s look at some common mistakes that students make with these kinds of prompts.
Often, students will write about a particular experience, say, travel to a foreign country. The essay might go something like this: “The summer I traveled to Paris changed me. We left from LAX on a Friday. It was the first time I had flown alone. When I arrived in Paris the next day, my study group was waiting at the airport. We went to our hotel and checked in, and then we began sightseeing. We were in Paris for a whole week, seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and even journeying outside the city for a tour of the palace at Versailles.”
From here, the student makes a fatal error. He skips the most important part of the essay, the part where the change actually takes place. The essay continues from here with: “My summer in Paris greatly changed the way I see the world. When I go to college, I will again have to be on my own and be self-sufficient. I am ready for this challenge because of my memorable summer in a foreign country.”
We know the student has changed, but there is no how or why this change occurred. There is no action, no dialogue, and no process. “I went to France and I came back a changed man. This is why I will do well in college.”
Another mistake is the essay that focuses on everybody but the student. “The summer I hosted the exchange student from China was the summer where I changed the most. My guest arrived at LAX at 11:00 PM. We picked her up and drove her to my house. She knew a lot of English, and even though she was obviously very nervous, she was really into seeing Los Angeles. We went to Disneyland, LACMA, the Getty Center, all the cultural and entertainment venues in the city. It was an incredible month of fun. When she left, Sue, as we came to call her, told me she felt like she had grown up completely. As she boarded the plane for Beijing, I saw a woman who was ready for anything the world might throw at her. During that summer, we had both grown up.” So if Sue applies to the same university, this student has already written her application for her.
Finally, students often throw in things that result in accidental negatives. These are aspects mentioned in the essay that could be taken the wrong way. “Every day during the summer between junior and senior years, my mom would drop me at UCLA on her way to work so I could take my SAT class. The class was rather boring, but it did give me the opportunity to meet people. After the class I would spend my time in the library waiting for my mom to come and pick me up after work. Normally, I hate libraries. I like coffeehouses better. There is more action and more people to meet. But sitting in the library that summer was not so bad.”
Honesty is always the best policy, the cliché goes. In this case, condemning the class as boring might give the wrong impression. Saying one hates libraries might also not endear an applicant to the admissions committee.
So what should you do with this application essay?
First of all, realize that the number of words you are allowed make this a case where you need to write in a focused, detailed manner. Tangents might waste words and not necessarily move your piece forward. Start with an experience. This might be a success, a failure, an opportunity, a missed opportunity, or a negative event with a positive outcome.
For instance, there is nothing wrong with describing a trip to another country that you think made you mature or more responsible, or be interested in exploring the world. Fully describe the trip, or the experience. Put us in the middle of it. When you finish writing about it, try to look at it from the perspective of the readers. Do you really make them see the city, or feel and appreciate the experience? Details and description will win the day.
Next you must fully write about the reflection on the experience. This should actually be the bulk of your essay. “When I arrived back in Los Angeles from Paris, the city seemed smaller, less colorful. I began to think about the differences between the two places, and how since I traveled to Paris, my home city now seemed less cultured, less interesting to me.”
Be sure to include in this section how the experience changed you—how are you different now? This is the growing part, the epiphany. “I realized that I wanted to see more of the world, that I love new cultures and new people, and that the experience in Paris energized me and set the course of my life. I want to see the world and learn.” Yes, a little idealistic, but you get the picture. We need to see the change happen.
The last section should be about the wisdom you have accumulated in the experience, and how this connects to your view of college life. “My trip to Paris makes me the ideal student for the university. I am ready to contribute to, and benefit from, the diversity offered on your campus. Having experienced at least one major world city, I now hunger for more—more experience, more learning, more culture—and this will make all the difference as I pursue my educational goals.”
Of course, the essay hinges on your prewriting practice. Most students find themselves stymied by the enormity of the essay. I mean, this piece could be the key to, or the lock on, your future. Do not panic. Simply start writing. Write whatever comes to mind and keep going. You can cut, shape, throw away, later. Right now, just open the tap and start writing about a memory, a moment, something that sticks in your mind, a question, even if you do not know the answer. Do not worry about cohesion, or length, or style, or spelling or grammar. Just write. Recognize that this piece will need extensive process, meaning revision and drafting. If you start thinking finished product, you will block yourself.
Therefore, you cannot write this the night before it is due.
You want to shape it, mold it, and make every sentence tell. That will take drafts, and working on it sentence by sentence, point by point.
But initially, just write.
It also might help to read some essays. The Norton Reader is a good source, or any of the other nonfiction anthologies in the book store. I use an essay by writer William Michaelian called “A Map of My Heart,” about growing up Armenian in the central part of California. You can access this piece at:
It is an excellent and powerful piece of writing, although much longer than most application essays. Still, it is an example of putting the reader in the middle of something. You cannot read Michaelian’s piece without understanding and appreciating his Armenian heritage and the warmth and depth of his family life and history.
So you sit down at your desk and you start writing. You come up with several rambling possibilities. How do you shape them into an essay? Start in the middle of things. Let’s begin in the airport in Paris with the crowds surging around you and gendarmes armed with machine guns patrolling the concourse. Or, start with some action: “I only had a moment to act before the train left the station and I would be lost in the French countryside.”
What if it’s too long? In revision, cut exposition. Cut the experience—often it can be stated in one to two sentences. We need to see the moment of change, the reaction to the stimulus. Knowing you flew into the city on a Tuesday night is probably not as important. Look for the parts that tell us detail, that put us in the middle of action. Cut the background information that does not move the story forward. Focus on the turmoil, the change in you, the reflection part.
You can also cut the “this is how I’ve changed” part. We can see this in a single image. “Upon arrival at LAX, I made my way to the luggage carousel with confidence, a young woman moving among the numerous throngs of travelers, each finding, like me, her own destiny.”
You also ask if you can lie and make up a story. No, because false stories lack conviction, and can also be checked, and being caught in a lie is pure embarrassment. You can, however, bend the story to fit your needs. Absolute fact is never as interesting as your impressions of an event. It does not matter if something happened over two nights; if the story is not lessened, make it one night. You can combine characters, or change names. But the basic facts should stand. However remember that it is your impressions that will make the story real for the reader. We are seeing this event through your eyes. How does it feel to be you in this mess, and what did it leave you with?
The admissions committee has your test scores, your grades, your basic application, your teacher’s recommendation. What they do not have is your voice. They may, at some point, require a personal interview. Many colleges do. The application essay is another opportunity for the committee to hear you. You are speaking directly to them, so tell them what your stats and resume do not.
You might explain a bad grade in a difficult class.
Talk about the time you moved or changed schools.
Talk about something you witnessed—a fight between parents or relatives—that you did not come to understand until later, and changed the way you viewed your family.
Talk about where you live.
Talk about a time you did something wrong and never got caught, but regret to this day.
Talk about you. It is all about you. This one time, in this one essay, it is okay to be the most important person in the room.