Preparing for College

More Essay Insights

Some people say, "Hey, you're only 17. How tough can your life be at such a young age?" However, the reality sometimes can be very tough, even for teens. That's why you may want to consider an essay about a certain difficulty (or difficulties) in your life and how you dealt with it. I'm not talking about the "difficulty" of not getting the latest iPhone or not being able to go to Spain on spring break with your high school buddies.  I'm talking about significant problems that young people don't usually have to deal with, such as sickness, injury, parent problems, personality issues, or even political upheaval in your country, just to name a few examples.

Colleges like to see evidence of their applicants dealing with adversity and rising above it. Overcoming difficult circumstances is a legitimate topic for college application essays, assuming that those circumstances are, indeed, difficult. 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. In my post today, I thought I would share an excellent example of just this type of essay.


Cheryl Gillespie (not her real name, of course) is an overcomer. She wrestled with shyness in her young years. Before you read her essay, learn a little more about Cheryl's background from some information she sent to me.

". . . Regarding my college process:

I applied to three schools: Harvard University, Brown University, and Georgetown University; I also applied to Tulane University as a backup school (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, 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 high school year. If that happens, one will spend the next three years trying to bring up those grades . . ."

Here (with her permission) is what Cheryl wrote about dealing with her shyness:

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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So, do you have some kind of challenge in your life that you have worked to overcome, like Cheryl? If so, give some thought to writing about it in your college applications. It could be a key to unlock some college doors.

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