Admissions

More on Common Application and Supplemental Essays

I’ll continue today with our discussion about approaching the Common Application essay and those pesky supplemental statements that colleges love to include on their Common App supplements. Those of you who have followed my essay-related posts here over the years know that I am a big advocate of using humor in your writing. My oft-cited mantra about that is, “Make an admissions officer smile and you’re halfway home.”

Accordingly, I would like to present another real-world essay example from my client archives, one that shows a superior example of well-thought-out humor. This essay inspires not only smiles but also reveals a lot about the writer, two very attractive, if not essential, essay ingredients.

The writer, whose work I displayed in my last post, is Dan Buckner. To recap about Dan, he’s from a small town in Indiana. He was deferred ED at Yale that year, but his 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. He ultimately was accepted at and, obviously, enrolled at Yale.


As I got to know Dan better from our almost daily email exchanges, I soon discovered that he had a very sharp sense of humor, in addition to great sensitivity. I encouraged him to take a seemingly mundane event from his life and expose it to his analytical lightheartedness. As you’ll see here, he followed my suggestion magnificently, even adding an intriguing title.

 

Haircuts and Other Aviation Disasters

I felt the wheels of a cold 747 touch down on my head. I jumped and ran frantically to the bathroom. As I saw the familiar face peering back at me, I felt my stomach sink. There, peering from behind the mirror was Albert, with a brand-new airplane landing strip right down the middle of his head. Another crash landing.

The thing I dislike most in the world is long hair. I don’t mean I dislike the style of long hair or people with long hair. I just dislike long hair on myself. I have very thick, curly hair that lends itself to certain discomforts. Sleeping causes my hair to lodge between the pillow and my skull, which incessantly tugs on my scalp all night long, leaving me with a sore head the next day. Combing proves futile since the comb hooks onto my curls like Velcro and the force required to break through the snarled mass is beyond my pain threshold. Styling products give me headaches. So, I prefer just to crop it all off, as if I’m in Navy boot camp.

This manner of hairstyle seems like a pretty good solution to end all my troubles, doesn’t it? Nope, it’s just a trade-off. The shorter my hair is, the faster it grows. My hair grows so fast that every two weeks I need another trim just to maintain a bearable length. All I need is someone willing to take five minutes to turn on the clippers and do a few passes over my head. Solution: I let my mom cut my hair.

Having my mom cut my hair is like flying on an airplane. Sure, it’s risky with potential deadly results, but it gets me where I want to go in a short time. But as my mom and the airline industry have proven, out of the many flights from Chicago to New York, there always are a few memorable crashes.

One Sunday morning four years ago, I sat on the barber-chair bucket in the garage for my usual biweekly buzz. The clippers humming above my head sounded like a benign turboprop cruising at 30,000 feet. The gentle buzzing assured me that I wouldn’t have to endure long hair any longer. Everything seemed routine until I felt the sting of what felt like a whirling propeller. My hand instinctively reached toward the trauma site and found a small bare spot. I sprinted to the bathroom mirror and took a small hand mirror from the drawer, angling it so I could see the back of my head.

“And I have school tomorrow!” I shrieked. My mind raced, searching for some covert plan to feign my own death or hitchhike to Canada. After my fanciful plans died in committee, I sequenced some objective logic: “How can I repair this? My hair is black. A ballpoint pen would take off more skin than it would blacken. I need something like . . . a felt marker!” Thus, I proceeded to apply several artful layers of permanent magic marker to my bare spot, and–voila–no more annoying spot.

No one noticed the canyon on the side of my head during the two weeks that it took my hair to grow back. Somehow, I imagined that this experience would serve as an experiential warning and avert future haircut disasters. I was wrong.

This past winter, I once again stood in front of that mirror gazing at yet another calamity. This clear-cut strip would have pleased even the most maniacal lumberjack. It was way too large to repair with markers. So, to compensate, I was forced to shave the rest of my head, since I didn’t really care for the inverted-Mohawk look. Besides that, the Sahara was too far for my coin jar to take me.

That winter I walked around in my big, warm wool sweater complemented by my glistening shaved head. This time, though, EVERYONE noticed. Such is life at Buck’s Barber Shop Airlines.

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It would be hard to imagine an admissions reader not getting a chuckle out of this essay. Dan’s final sentence, “Such is life at Buck’s Barber Shop Airlines,” echos his title, which is a nice element of what I call “circularity.” It wraps up the essay with a smile and convincing, reflective closure.

Regarding titles: Titles can lend heft to an essay if they are carefully thought out. After you have finished your final revision and you’re satisfied that your essay can’t get much better, reread it one more time. Look for one or two key aspects that you may be able to work into a title, as Dan did.

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Here’s a good example of what I call an “overcoming” essay. Many of us faced challenges in our formative years and we struggled with them. Some of those struggles might have changed who we are or how we later approached life. Marilyn Campbell is an “overcomer.” She wrestled with shyness in her young years. Before you read her essay, learn a little more about Marilyn’s background from an update she sent to me:

>>I never did quite get the opportunity to thank you [for helping me develop my essay]. Regarding my college process:

>>I applied to three schools early action: Harvard University, Brown University, and Georgetown University; I applied to Tulane University as a backup school regular decision (it can be considered a backup for those people who reside in-state).

>>I am happy to say that I was accepted at Brown, at Georgetown (thank you very much!), and at Tulane; I was deferred from Harvard; I am not applying to any more schools.

>>If there’s something I learned about applying to colleges and watching my friends apply to them, I would recommend applying to as many early action schools as possible by the deadlines. This takes away the stress and work of doing several applications at a very busy time of the year (one is taking exams or they are hanging over our heads).

>>At the very least, if one applies to one school early action or early decision, s/he should not wait until they receive that school’s response to begin filling out all the other applications waiting in the wings. I know that it is very tempting to wait, but after seeing what this has done to several of my friends, I highly recommend getting an early start.

>>Finally, I suggest that students don’t blow off their freshman year. If that happens, one will spend the next three years trying to bring up those grades.

>>Thanks again!

>>Marilyn<<

Here’s her essay:

When I was a young, awkward adolescent, I considered myself to be a shy person, especially around boys. Because of this, my experiences at a coed middle school intimidated me somewhat. So, for the past five years, I have attended an all-girls school, which has helped me to become a stronger person. I have overcome my shyness and insecurities and developed much more confidence.

Ironically, I believe that my shyness, something that I consider a communication barrier, has ultimately led me to focus on a field for my life’s work: communications. Despite my aversion to it early on in life, I now love speaking to and interacting with people, be it as a friend, teacher, or public speaker. I now have a passion for stimulating conversation, and that enthusiasm manifests itself in three different and important aspects of my life outside of the classroom: peer support, volunteer work, and music.

Peer support is a high school-sponsored program through which juniors and seniors are selected to work with eighth graders who attend Sacred Heart. It involves an intensive three-day workshop where student leaders learn how to listen effectively to and become mentors for the younger students. I love this work. Once a week, I get to speak to these impressionable boys and girls about anything that I feel is important. I enjoy learning about their lives and their issues and exploring possible solutions to their problems. We study today’s society and its impact on them. I see much of my old self in these young people and that memory has helped me to help them become more confident about their everyday lives.

My volunteer work centers on teaching, through a program called Summerbridge. After school, I go to a nearby public school and tutor learning-disadvantaged preteens. Instead of dealing with the students’ personal issues, as I do in peer support, the Summerbridge focus is more on communication through education. By working with these younger students, I have come to understand the importance of helping them comprehend and apply what they learn in the classroom. Their motivation, given their circumstances, is remarkable. We discuss in detail what they are learning so that I can keep them interested and motivated. Summerbridge is another example of how communication issues are very important to me.

Not surprisingly, music has emerged as another, perhaps indirect, avenue for me to communicate with others. Singing allows me to convey my deep and personal emotions with others. When I sing, I am transported to another realm. The mundane everyday world around me disappears, and I am enveloped in my own, new space, especially when I am performing onstage. When I act, I am transformed, feeling the happiness, sadness, impishness, or even confusion that my character feels. My performance taps into that part of me where those qualities dwell, and I love sharing it with my audience. Music is a very special form of communication for me.

Perhaps the person I am today is a compensation for who I was years ago. That awkward twelve-year old, however, is no more. Now I want to show the world what I can do. Communication has become my passion. It will be my future.

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Are you getting the picture here? Look around your life. Even if you think that yours is the most boring, mundane existence on the planet, I can assure you that if I were to interview you, I would find at least several (and likely more) examples from your life that are the stuff of exceptional application essays.

Keep Dan and Marilyn in mind. If you’re currently stuck for an idea, take a survey of who you are, what you do, and how you affect those around you. I guarantee that you will find an event, a small, seemingly unimportant incident, or appropriate anecdote that can be fashioned into a worthy statement.

If you’re not exhausted from reading all the real-life essay examples I’ve already posted recently, stick around. I’ll post a few more for your edification next time.

Read, heed, and succeed!

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Be sure to see my other college-related articles on College Confidential.