Perhaps the most feared aspect of applying to college these days is writing that big Common Application essay, along with similarly sized supplemental essays that colleges love to attach to the Common App. For some students, major essay writing can be completely intimidating. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
By now in your educational experience, you should have enough writing acumen to at least approach these writing challenges with a reasonable group of skills. You’ve been writing papers and reports for a number of years now. Application essays are essentially a combination of technical expertise and imagination. Humor can be a big help, too.
I’ve made a number of posts over the years here about essays — approaching them, conjuring ideas, infusing using humor, etc. I’ll continue today with more ideas, trying to help those of you who are beginning or continuing to develop your Common Application and supplemental essay efforts.
Over the next several posts, I’ll share with you some real-world essay examples that I have gathered from past years as I have counseled seniors on their college quest. I’m a believer that seeing what works for others is an excellent way to expand your thinking and quell those fears.
I had reasonable success in my young years as a tennis player. I never had a professional lesson. What I did do, however, was attend a lot of tennis tournaments, watch tennis on TV, and buy how-to tennis books written by the pros. By observing what worked for all these players who were better (far better) than I was, I lifted my skills and became a more competitive player.
That’s the approach I would like to take here: observe and learn. So, let’s give it a try.
Meet Jim Haggerty. He’s a young man from New York whom everyone should know. I feel this way even though I’ve never met him. That’s one of the downsides to communicating only by email. I don’t get to meet “my kids” and their families in person. Nevertheless, Jim’s superb essay speaks quite clearly and provides a prime example of how applicants can project a lot about themselves to the admissions staff without ever appearing in the flesh to state their case.
Jim’s essay is a good example of how a longer essay can hold the reader’s interest. One crucial mistake some applicants make is to equate length with significance. One past year, Princeton’s prompt included a reminder about the brevity of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (a mere 272 words). The point to note is that if you have something interesting to say, then by all means say it, but don’t drone on in hopes that eventually something good will occur (it almost always doesn’t).
Jim’s essay is about three times as long as Lincoln’s profound statement, but it pretends none of its gravity. It’s an articulate, funny glimpse at one of Jim’s main passions (there’s that word again!). Today, Jim couldn’t use his essay on the Common App (but perhaps for the University of Chicago) because of its length. I’m using it as an example here to illustrate, among others, the points of voice and personal warmth. Take note of how well Jim’s voice comes through. Although I’ve never spoken with Jim, I’m willing to bet that he talks much like his essay reads. That’s called “voice,” and he comes through loud and clear here. See for yourself:
The theater changed my life in fourth grade. When I delivered my line, I was the center of the world for five seconds. It was a wonderful feeling, only one that an actor could know. I was going to be an actor and nothing could stop me. Five minutes later when the director cut my line, I quickly changed my mind.
I did not become involved in theater again until ninth grade when I joined Stage Crew to please an English teacher. While my report card might have been the initial catalyst for participating, I fell madly in love with my screw gun and a year later I was Crew Chief. There was a great satisfaction in building scenery, an overwhelming sense of pride. That year I helped build rotating boxes for My Favorite Year. The boxes would rotate to reveal a new scene on each side. Unfortunately, the boxes were so big, they crushed the wheels that supported them. Poor designing or not, I still loved every minute of it.
But the Stage Crew got to do even more; we moved scenery. Moving scenery was absolutely insane. With my heart pumping and adrenaline rushing, I ran frantically around the stage pushing couches and turning boxes. I had fun. Lots of it in fact. So much that I kept doing it through productions of The Crucible, The Me Nobody Knows, and West Side Story, just to name a few.
This past summer I joined the Scarsdale Summer Music Theater’s performance of Pippin to improve my growing backstage skills. I found myself Crew Chief, Stage Left with two main responsibilities. First there was the fly rail, the metal bar that handled all of the flies, the scenery that dropped from the ceiling during the show. You controlled the flies through a series of ropes and brakes. Pull the rope one way, the scenery would drop. Pull it the other way, the scenery would go up. If the fly ascended or descended too quickly, you applied a brake to the rope. It was simple enough, but mistakes with the flies could lead to seriously damaged actors. The flies made me nervous.
I was also responsible for a crew of five people who had to execute fifty-six separate cues, many of which happened in complete darkness, and one right after another. If we succeeded, the audience wouldn’t even notice our presence. But an error could throw off the pace of the show, or even worse, bring it to a screaming halt. That made me more nervous.
The first two shows were not exactly masterpieces. Opening night was our first run through and was filled with glitches. The second night wasn’t much better. I was determined that the third show would be perfect. I also wished I had a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Lacking that, I swallowed my fear and began screaming orders. Cat, one of my crew members, was making fun of my attempts to be an authority figure by doing an impression of me. I scolded her in just the manner that she had been making fun of. I shook my head and put on my headset. Nikky, the stage manager told us to get ready.
The show was going well. The problems that we normally had opening and closing a curtain were minimal. We successfully turned around the throne to reveal a tent, and when two separate flats were placed together they spelled “Pippin” and not” Pinpip.”
The first act was almost over and all I had to do was lower a pair of arches from the ceiling that would magically transform the stage into a cathedral. Nikky called the cue and I began lowering the arches. I had begun to ease into a state of relaxation when Nikky suddenly started yelling “Hold!” into my headset. The arches had just crashed into a platform on the stage two inches away from the actor playing Charlemagne. I quickly raised them so the Stage Right Crew could move the platform, and lowered them when the platform was clear. I had a horrible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had visions of the director cutting me from the show and sending me home. I really could have used some Pepto-Bismol.
I felt lousy for the rest of the show. I had messed up big time and almost killed Charlemagne. But I still barked orders, made funny hand signals, and kept the crew going despite a growing void in my stomach. I wanted to stop, but this show was the culmination of a month and a half of work, including many twelve-hour days. But I had messed up, which bothered me. As the show ended, I wanted to make a quick exit for myself, when I saw Nikky coming up to me.
“You’re the man,” said Nikky with a big smile. There were more compliments in that smile than in a standing ovation by four thousand people. The mistake faded away as a distant memory. For five seconds, my pride swelled enough to make me feel like the center of the world. It was the most wonderful feeling I’ve ever had, only one that a stage hand could know.
After reading Jim’s essay, you may be wondering about his background. Here’s a short version of The Jim Haggerty Story …
He first got the idea to use humor in his writing after reading (on his own) Voltaire’s Candide early in high school. He fancies himself as a science and math type, but his writing has always been one of his strongest points. Once again, we see the element of balance as a defining characteristic. Jim’s sophomore English teacher inferred this balance by noting on one of Jim’s poems: “Not bad for a computer nerd.” Indeed.
Jim’s essay works on many subtle levels. The interesting thing about good writers is that sometimes they’re not aware of the intricacies they create when they write. They just write. We can learn a lot from this essay. It’s a terrific object lesson in how to do it right. Here’s a partial analysis with some supporting information thrown in.
The incident in the first paragraph of Jim’s essay is a true anecdote. He had one solo line in the play, and was enjoying being “an actor” (even with one lonely line) when the director cut it.
Don’t forget your “formative” memories. The events of our youth — sometimes inspiring, sometimes traumatic — can prove to be wonderful starting points for an essay. Obviously, the nature of the event will set the tone for your statement. If you’ve decided to take the serious path in your essay, don’t be afraid to reach deep and pull out your remembered emotions that event inspired. Chances are, your readers may have experienced something similar and your candidness might inspire their empathy. If, like Jim, you choose a lighter approach, your predicament should prove to be an excellent foil for your humorous touch.
Once again, we can see how reading plays a role in successful essays. According to his father, Jim is a “voracious” reader who likes to hang out at more at Barnes & Noble than the mall. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, a quality that seems to come through in his essay. Jim is undecided on a college major, but is leaning toward the natural sciences, computer science, or perhaps engineering. English is definitely out, though, (“too many serious and deep people”).
Many times, there is a connection between writing skills and an interest in engineering. This refutes the stereotype that technically oriented types tend to be poor communicators (re: “Not bad for a computer nerd”). Jim’s profile supports the “poet-scientist” hook. He assembles computers in his spare time and is looking to overthrow Microsoft someday, a true off-the-beaten-path, if not highly idealistic, attitude.
His “balance” aspect is further supported by his ECs. He participates in the high school band, theater, literary magazine, and Boy Scouts. Jim likes science fiction, has an excellent collection of comic books going back to the second grade, admires Being Digital by Negroponte, and has warehoused his childhood collection of Transformers (another engineering seedbed).
If you have a sense of humor, bring it out in your essay. Notice the second sentence of Jim’s next-to-last paragraph: “I had messed up big time and almost killed Charlemagne.” That one short sentence works on three separate levels of success. First, notice the voice: “I had messed up big time …” We can hear Jim speaking in his real-life, believable vernacular, thus helping us perceive him. Next, “… and almost killed Charlemagne” strikes us as absurd. Even though we know this is only a high school play, Jim’s intense involvement in its production seems to almost transport him to Charlemagne’s time. Finally, that short, colloquial, ironic statement sets the stage for the final paragraph’s resolution, where Nikky’s compliment allows Jim to feel better than if he had received “a standing ovation by four thousand people.”
Also note how Jim’s subtle humor sets the stage, so to speak, in his opening paragraph. After a great personal-revelation lead, “The theater changed my life in fourth grade,” Jim needs only four sentences to set us up and then pull the rug from under us. He goes from his one-line “center of the world” to a complete change of mind. We’re compelled to keep reading. This is what lead paragraphs are meant to do.
Although I could rant on about other highlights in this essay (such as the great lines, “I fell madly in love with my screw gun and a year later I was Crew Chief” and “… they spelled ‘Pippin’ and not ‘Pinpip”), I’ll limit myself to one final stratagem:
Close the loop. Bring your essay full circle. Notice Jim’s third sentence in his opening paragraph: “It was a wonderful feeling, only one that an actor could know.” Now skip all the way to his final sentence, much later: “It was the most wonderful feeling I’ve ever had, only one that a stage hand could know.” That’s closure, baby!
Jim started out being enthralled by acting. Then he experienced one of life’s little curve balls. He adjusted, making the most of his situation. He found success and happiness as a stagehand, which is not a glory role but challenging enough, as we see from his technical description of the goings on backstage. Jim lays out the whole fresco of his evolution from an aspiring one-line actor to that of a dedicated virtuoso Crew Chief (and part-time Charlemagne maimer) between these two sentences. If we’re sharp enough, we pick up the circle and the closure. As a result, we’re satisfied. The tale has been told and is complete. Bravo.
Jim provides just one excellent example of how to approach application essays. Granted, most essay prompt guidelines limit word length to fewer words than Jim used. The Common App allows up to 650. However, the point here is to see how personal (and personable) voice and humor, mixed in among pertinent anecdotes can be completely effective in getting your readers to get a feel for who you are.
Since we’re at that crucial time of year where application ideas are (or should be!) percolating, I’ll bring out a few more of the best essays from my archives for your learning pleasure. Read, heed, and succeed!
Be sure to see my other college-related articles on College Confidential.