Admissions

Make An Admissions Officer Smile

… and you’ll be halfway home. That’s one of the cornerstones of my advice to college applicants about writing application essays. In my work with high school seniors applying to competitive colleges, I’m amazed at the lifelessness of the majority of essay drafts that I see. The core of the problem of their ability to produce mundane text seems to be that they’re writing what they think the admissions committee readers want to see rather than what they (the applicant) want to write.

How many times in your life have you told someone what you think they want to hear instead of what you really wanted to say? Granted, there are common-sense limits to what you really should say, or in the case of application essays, what you want to write. However, put yourself in the shoes of a typical harried admissions person who is facing a mountain of folders and an unreasonable deadline. Picture this poor, exhausted man or woman struggling to stay awake at 1:30 a.m. on a freezing, snowy night, opening your application folder (or electronic equivalent) and, going straight to your essay, seeing this stimulating opening sentence: “Through soccer, I have learned the value of teamwork, perseverance, and hard work.”

Now there’s a cure for insomnia. Granted, the new prompts for the Common Application have eliminated the handy “Any topic” category, but that shouldn’t stop you from using your innate creativity and even a scintilla of a sense of humor to keep things stimulating and lively. Granted, there are times when a serious tone is appropriate. In fact, trying to make light of a serious topic can sometimes backfire. In general, though, if you can create some kind of memorable “anchor” in the brains of your readers, you stand a better chance to win a favorable judgment about your case, assuming of course that your other credentials are at least in the ballpark with your competition. They may just remember you and that smile you inspired.


 

Okay. Now that I’ve pontificated at length about the value of humor in essays, let me deploy a real-life example. Some years ago I worked with a rather amazing young man who came from a difficult upbringing. Let’s call him “Dan.” What I liked about Dan was his ability to see the bright side of some rather dark situations in his life. Although he recounted some of these difficulties in other places on his application, he didn’t allow them to cast a dark cloud over his application.

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 humor. As you’ll see here (with Dan’s permission), he followed my suggestion magnificently.

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 Dan, 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 tradeoff. 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 Dan’s Barber Shop Airlines.

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Tip: 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.

By the way, Dan was admitted to Yale. So, don’t forget the power of humor in your essays. Keep those admissions officers smiling!

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Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.