My post today will be the last of this series on essays, at least for a while. As I mentioned in my three previous posts, I’m using as examples real-life essays taken from my client files of past years. I have had the pleasure of dealing with a large number of superb high school seniors who have gone on to the Ivy League and other so-called “elite” colleges and universities.
The advantage of seeing actual “live” essays is being able to sample what kinds of writing worked to help applicants succeed in getting into schools where the competition ranges from fierce to almost impossible. Many times, seeing is believing, although in today’s world, sometimes we can’t even believe what we see. Let me assure you, though. None of the essays I’ve used in this series have been Photoshopped!
So, let’s get on with it already …
Remember Marianne Park? I shared one of her winning essays two posts ago. She attended the University of Pennsylvania and is an Asian-American from the southwestern United States. Marianne moved to America as a very young girl, learned English, and attended a competitive public high school.
I’d like to share another of Marianne’s essays with you. This one incorporates the use of an intriguing lead, sometimes known as a “shock” opening. When she wrote this essay, years ago, the subject wasn’t nearly as “shocking” as it would be today, in light of recent happenings on college campuses around the country.
However, we can see how Marianne cleverly manipulates her opening and ties it into her close (remember my term “circularity”?). Here’s what I mean:
It was past midnight on Christmas day and I was holding a gun. I couldn’t concentrate on what I was doing anymore. The clock’s second hand ticked louder and my eyelids grew heavier as my contacts rubbed like sandpaper against my bloodshot eyes.
Finally, out of pure frustration, I pulled the trigger. But nothing happened. I was out of glue. Hot-glue guns were like that. I squinted at the floor, littered with tape, glue droppings, wood, broken blades, and so much other stuff that I could hardly find a place to step let alone find another almost-invisible, clear glue stick. I asked one of my class team members to help. The response was an irritated insult from a weary-eyed creature who once was my friend.
This was but one more chapter in the bitter saga known as “The Rube Goldberg Project.” It was the first time that any of us had tried to build a machine. At first I didn’t think it would be too hard: Just make a contraption of some sort, using as little money as possible, which could move a marble for at least one minute and no more than twenty minutes. Whatever team’s machine came closest to either one minute or twenty minutes received the highest grade. It was a deceptively simple challenge.
We didn’t waste any time getting started. Lani, a senior and veteran of past Goldbergs, warned, “Don’t procrastinate; you’ll never finish.” Armed with those words of wisdom, we rushed to MJ Designs for our supplies the same day that midterms ended. I even bought paint to decorate our project for extra points. We had no idea the misery that awaited us.
We spent many days endlessly fixing our project and snapping at each other. Finally, one night our friendships fell apart. Jen argued with Karen over the phone for leaving our project to attend a church event. As the bickering and yelling got louder, I just wanted to hide in my closet, but for some reason I didn’t let myself collapse into tears. Bending my sore back, I dutifully continued to saw away at a large block of wood. Then, suddenly, the door swung open and Jen ran out of the room, tears streaming down her face. After a long, awkward silence, I explained that it wasn’t Karen’s fault that she was not going to make it back from church in time. We couldn’t let this stop our work. I looked around, picked up the saw, and continued working. Seeing me work, the others started to work too.
I tried to serve as the bond in our group, holding our friendship and our project together. At times, it frustrated me because we buckled so easily, but I was determined that we would succeed and, indeed, we did. We built a “Lost in Space” machine that moved our marble for more than twelve minutes. It involved a staircase, a conveyor belt, and incline planes—a thing of intuitive beauty. Mrs. Killinger, our physics teacher, was so impressed that she awarded us the highest grade in our class.
The grade turned out to be of secondary importance. Mrs. K and our classmates appreciated our hard work, tears, and determination. That’s what made it all worthwhile to us. I realized that sometimes, no matter how hopeless things may seem at the moment, as long as I am willing to hang in there for just a little longer, the hard work usually pays off. Tenacity is a virtue . . . which helps when cleaning glue guns too.
Marianne’s opening paragraph seemingly sets a tone of apprehension. We hold our breath and hope that she is not writing about what we think she is. Then comes the peak of tension, and, finally, the “exhale”:
“… out of pure frustration, I pulled the trigger. But nothing happened. I was out of glue. Hot-glue guns were like that …”
Phew. That was close.
Point: Don’t be afraid to “give ’em a leg then take it away,” as the old football saw goes. Misdirection can be a highly effective tool to draw in your readers, especially when used right up front in your essay.
Notice, too, how Marianne ties her statement together neatly with her close:
“… I realized that sometimes, no matter how hopeless things may seem at the moment, as long as I am willing to hang in there for just a little longer, the hard work usually pays off. Tenacity is a virtue … which helps when cleaning glue guns too.”
Beautiful. Her readers at the University of Pennsylvania (her first-choice school) really liked, among other aspects, Marianne’s writing. She’s now a proud Penn alumna.
Another kind of application essay is the one used for transferring from one college to another. Hopefully, you won’t have to write one of these essays because, hopefully, your college-choice process made all the right moves. However, to show you the approach that one of my clients used when he needed it, I’d like to share his writing skill.
Ted Grice couldn’t stand Washington and Lee University. He reached that decision about half way through his first semester there. His goal: transfer immediately to another more highly diverse college or university. This essay, which essentially served as his transfer statement to other schools, displays his frustration and longing for greener pastures. Keep the tone of Ted’s essay in mind as you read the email excerpt that follows his essay.
When I was nine years old, my favorite movie was E.T., flying bicycle, Reese’s Pieces, and all. The scene that pierced my heart, though, was where E.T., gray and unconscious, lay dying in a stream. I didn’t understand then that E.T.’s crisis came from the thinness of Earth’s atmosphere. He needed richer air to breathe.
And, symbolically, so do I. The academic and cultural atmosphere at Washington and Lee (W&L) is too thin for me. Certainly others here are prospering, but I am in need of greater specific substance. Here I can’t find the variety of majors offered at Yale. I know now that my life’s passion is languages. I need a school that offers a linguistics major. I’ve tried to compensate here by maintaining my German skills and starting to learn Russian. I have even taken on Hindi studies on my own, outside of class. This has been frustrating on two fronts. I receive no credit for my independent language studies and, within my formal language classes, there is practically no linguistic context. There is just not enough teaching depth.
Another area where W&L starves me is the arts. Several years ago, I began my study of classical guitar. This has now become a vibrant, central part of my life. W&L’s faculty, however, has no classical guitarist with whom I may study. This sounds hard to believe, but I am the only classical guitarist on campus. Yale offers not only the tradition of Eliot Fisk through world-class guitarist Ben Verdery, but also a group of talented guitar students who stimulate an aura of infinite possibilities. For example, during a visit to Yale, I met first-year student Alex Henry who also plays classical guitar. His academics, musicianship, and dedication to the guitar inspired me to raise my own level of performance in these areas. This is the kind experience W&L does not offer.
Such teachers and students live outside of the classroom as well. The diversity of people and opportunity adds to the richness of Yale. The residential colleges promote the level of diversity I seek, the kind I so sorely miss here at W&L. The overwhelmingly homogenous social strata at this small, 1,400-student school prohibits me from learning anything about the world’s cultural fabric. We have a so-called International Club here. I say “so-called” because International students comprise only 2 percent of the student body, a mere shading within this very white, upper-class school’s profile. The residential colleges at Yale will give me the integrated perspective on diversity that I want rather than a student body where 90 percent belong to fraternities or sororities.
The atmosphere at W&L is suffocating me. My growth is being blunted. I’ve done the research, defined my needs, and selected the school where I know I’ll prosper. Yale has what I need to become the scholar, artist, and social member I must be. Perhaps the most sobering thought for me these days is imagining myself ten years from now, frustrated and dissatisfied, constantly wondering “What if . . .?” Yale has the power to fulfill me now, without any “What-ifs.”
Here is a suprising excerpt from the email that Ted sent to me following his transfer campaign:
“… Just a personal note: I stayed here at W&L. I’m extremely glad I did. I really underestimated what a small college can do. There are opportunities that I never dreamed of. I’d still have some fightin’ words about the whole Greek system, but the place is really changing and has offered me some incredible experiences in terms of conferences, study abroad, and getting to know professors. W&L has a lot to offer and life here can be pretty challenging and enlightening if you take advantage of it …”
I wanted to share Ted’s essay with you to illustrate the point that, indeed, temporary personal circumstances can cloud our thinking. Consequently, we sometimes do things that we may later regret. Had Ted bailed out and transferred to another school, he would have missed out on all the benefits that W&L had to offer. He hadn’t given his school a chance. The lesson here is — don’t be quick to commit to or abandon something unless you have done thorough research.
So, we reach the end of our series on Common Application and supplemental essays, with the bonus of a transfer essay thrown in. I hope you’ve learned a few things about storytelling, humor, openings, closings, and circularity, as they apply to your own experience.
I’ll no doubt be back with more about essays in the future. Until then (for the final time) …
Read, heed, and succeed!
Be sure to see my other college-related articles on College Confidential.