The College Essay: Clicking Send

Ally Rokita, now a proud college freshmen, but pictured here in Northern Ireland traveling right after graduation.

Today, November 1st, is not only the Halloween Candy Hangover for schoolchildren everywhere; it’s also the deadline for some early college applications.  I’ve had a lot of college essay reading this fall both from students and children of friends who know I’m an English teacher (Side note: it’s okay to send to me– love it, can’t get enough of being part of the college application process)  See this girl up above in the red phone booth in Northern Ireland?  This is her right after graduation, traveling with her brother and his wife, and, of course, helping me to market True North.  Was it really just a year ago we worked on her college essay?

And, it seems to me, that no matter where kids attend school (be it public or private or giant suburban district or small and rural like my own) some of the same issues still exist.  Maybe when given the freedom to write personally, they freeze up?  Maybe they lack confidence?  Hard to say.

Students struggle with:

  1.  Deciding what they want to write about which will show college admissions officers that they are smart, motivated, and compassionate WITHOUT shoving it in their faces that they are these things.
  2. Illustrating that perhaps they are well traveled or global thinkers with innovative ideas, talents, or arguments WITHOUT listing every country/ resort, or community service endeavor; nor do they compromise confidence with arrogance:  LOOK HOW AWESOME I am.
  3. Getting to the point in the very last paragraph, when they should spend most of their essay on what they actually write about in their last paragraph.

Students should:

  1. Show don’t tell.
  2. Take a memory snapshot, describe in words, and reflect on why it mattered.
  3. Start early and write often.
  4. Check out “Essays that Worked” on Connecticut College’s Admission page (or any other university admissions page for that matter)
  5. Remember:
  • There will be 67,000 students who write about playing on a sports team.
  • There will be 10,000 students who balanced good grades with a bunch of other stuff.
  • There will be 4300 students who traveled somewhere to help someone.
  • There will be 700 students who care as much about being valedictorian of their school as do about life itself.

These are not real statistics but you get my point.

With that said, what makes you different?  What makes you memorable?  It won’t be the fact that you have a single mom; rather, the single mom or single dad or divorced parents, or deceased parent, or dysfunctional family, or traumatic life experience, or debilitating illness/ accident, or epic failure or important mentor or life changing move from India to Vermont– all of these have impacted the person you have become.  So what?  Tell us a story that shows why a college should still want you on their campus.

I’d like to think the college essay I wrote 25 years ag0 (insert yikes here) would still be good enough to get me into Connecticut College today.   I wrote about coaching 9 and 10 year old girls in recreational soccer and worried they were too involved in too many extracurricular activities.  One line I still remember because it was revised so many times:  “I realized, however, after our first practice, that differences between 10 year old girls of today and those of almost a decade ago didn’t end with the price of our sneakers.”

My parents never saw the essay I wrote until after I had already applied to college.  My teachers did though, and I was grateful for their help.  My mother reminded me to send them thank you notes– as should you.  You might think it’s part of our job to spend countless hours reading and helping students sort through the crap to find the nugget of gold– all writers put a whole lot of crap down on paper and then the sifting begins– the sifting is as important if not more so than the writing itself or even the content of what you write.    All kids have that nugget and it’s our responsibility to help you to uncover it.

Then there is the point we reach where we’ve maxed out what a student can do with their essay, and we let it go.  This is your essay, not ours, and if we work too hard on it together, the essay becomes more ours than yours, no matter how badly we want to help them get into the college of their choice.

And so today, Nov. 1, is your deadline or maybe Dec. 15, or Feb. 15.  After you have worked hard on your college essay, you will hit send.  Click send firmly, proudly, and breathe deeply. Then, and only then, do we hope for the best.

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