My apologies to George Gershwin for adapting the title of one of his famous songs for my article today. The reason that summertime is a good time to write … yes, college application essays … is because the pace of livin' (to borrow the original Gershwin song title word) is slower for most rising high school seniors. Thus, in order to get a significant jump on those Common Application essay(s) (there will be more than one if your college requires a Common App supplement), you should plan ahead and use the summer to your writing advantage.
In case you're not familiar with those Common App prompts, here they are:
- Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
As Veritas Prep interestingly points out: “The people behind The Common Application have just released the new essay prompts (PDF link) for college applicants who apply in the 2013-2014 admissions season. As noted in The Common Application Board of Directors' announcement, these new prompts are the result of two years of discussion about where essays fit in the overall college admissions process. This is the first big change to the essays in years (including to the word counts!), and it's clear that the Common Application Board didn't take the task of reworking these essays lightly."
One has to wonder why it took two years to make these changes. At least it won't take you two years to write your Common App essay!
Summertime is also the time for reruns on TV. So, in that spirit, I'd like to do a rerun here of a very popular article (actually, a series of articles) that I wrote for College Confidential. It's all about writing essays and uses real-life samples to inspire your writing skills. So, get out your notebooks and get ready to capture some thoughts that will propel you to Common App essay success!
What follows is a kind of essay clinic for those applicants who are unsure about how to approach application essays. I called my clinic Real-Life College Essay Lessons. Here's an example of what you'll find there:
I hope you're aware of the vital importance of the essay as a component of the elite college application. To give you some further perspective, I'm including here some representative sample essays from my archives. I'll make some background comments about the writers (names have been changed for privacy), comment on their essay, and throw in some tips about the college essay process.
Let's look at the case of Yvonne Tan, an Asian-American first-year student at the University of Pennsylvania. She's from the southwestern United States. Yvonne moved to America as a very young girl, learned English, and attended a competitive public high school. Here, in her own words (in response to a follow-up from me), is a description of some of her college-process details:
“I applied to the University of Pennsylvania Early Decision, and was accepted. I am currently attending Penn. I also applied to Berkeley, Duke, Rice, Yale, Washington University in St. Louis, and University of Texas at Austin. Since I applied early to Penn and was accepted, I had my applications withdrawn from those other schools.
“As for my progress, I am doing surprisingly well. If you would like to know, my GPA so far is a 3.84. I also have a job as a research assistant with a professor at Penn's medical school along with other activities and clubs. I love Penn! I've met the most interesting people; some even came from India and Africa!
“I did learn something about the college application process though. I realized that the most important part of the whole application was the essay. No matter how high your GPA or SAT scores are, a bad essay can make or break you. I had a friend who was Valedictorian of our class and made 1500 [M+CR] on her SAT. She was rejected from almost all the schools she applied to. She was extremely confident and didn't feel like she needed to work very hard on her essay. She didn't realize that the most important part was the essay.
“I knew somebody who worked in one of the Ivy's admission office. She told me that sometimes, it's all about the essay. She has seen people get in based solely on one quality essay. I also want to let high schoolers know that even though it may be extremely disappointing to be rejected from “Dream U," it is not because you are not good enough. Sometimes absolutely smart and talented kids just slip though the cracks. The admission officers are aiming to build a class, and not out to get you."
In discussing essay possibilities with Yvonne, I encouraged her to accent her heritage, perky spirit, and obviously good sense of humor. She chose to bring out these elements in a statement that reflects her respect of family, cultural tradition, and some of those awkward moments from our youth that we'd rather forget. As you read her words, you can almost picture her in the midst of the scenes she paints. This is quality writing.
* * *
I reached for a fish ball (my favorite), wedging the chopsticks tightly between my fingers. I felt a little clumsy leaning toward that center dish. The dinner wasn't all that formal, but I was trying to make a good impression. Then suddenly, my hand-eye coordination failed.
Ten pairs of eyeballs watched in horror as my precious little fish ball squirted out the side of my sticks and bounced onto the table. In what seemed like one of those slow-motion dream sequences from the movies, I watched the little sphere leave a telltale trail of sauce as it rolled determinedly toward the table's edge. I tried to be cool. “No big deal," I thought, as I quietly tried to scoop it with my chopsticks. When that failed, I tried a stab, which only pushed it farther away.
I quickly tried to cover my embarrassment by plastering a bright smile on my ever-reddening face. My father, who was witnessing this dining mini-drama, deftly secured the little ball and, with skill and grace, deposited it into my bowl. “Hmm," he muttered with a sigh, “'Can't even use chopsticks." A woman next to him joked, “A Chinese girl who can't use chopsticks?!" Other guests bit their lips, trying to suppress their laughter. As I pondered this unlikely scene, I couldn't fault their amusement. After all, it was remarkable how un-Chinese I had become.
My friends call me “Banana Girl": Yellow skin on the outside and white on the inside. At times, I think I'm not Asian anymore, such as during the fish-ball incident. A while ago, my mother sagely predicted that it wouldn't be long before hamburgers and pizza would be a big part of my diet (they already represent two of my four daily food groups). “No problem for me," I said. I was okay with that. “Nothing wrong with being 'Americanized'," I thought. What people don't understand is that, although I am well adapted to America's culture, I still greatly respect Chinese traditions.
When my great-grandmother died this past summer, we couldn't attend her funeral due to financial difficulties. Her death was unexpectedly sudden. So, out of respect for her and our Chinese heritage, we created our own funeral ceremony at home. My mother and I went to our local Chinese market and bought a number of items made of paper (aprons, plates, and other household goods). We even got some Chinese paper money. Then my mother got out her large cooking pot and we went into the back yard and put all the paper items (even the money) into the pot and began burning them.
Chinese, especially the Cantonese people, believe that after a person dies, they move on to another life where they still need practical things like money and clothes. The only way the dead can receive these items is if their relatives gather and burn them, sending them into the air as smoke. After we completed the ceremonial burning, we prepared a feast in remembrance of my great-grandmother. This meal is a kind of symbolic “last supper" with the deceased.
I find the tradition both elegant and comforting. As part of the ceremony, I held up three burning sticks and bowed toward the flaming pot. It was a way to say goodbye and pay respect. Technically, it doesn't make much sense because I bowed to the pot, not to my great-grandmother. I didn't think it was weird at all. I understand and respect that tradition. It is intended to assure that the dead are well provide for. I understand that many traditions aren't logical. It doesn't matter to me, though, because I embrace my Chinese heritage.
I'm pretty sure that I'll probably never master the skill of picking up food with two wooden sticks. In fact, I greatly prefer knives, forks, and spoons. Throughout my cultural transition, though, I've learned that adapting to one culture hasn't “erased" my original identity or my traditional background. I am blessed to have had the advantage of living in and understanding two vastly different cultures. I'm certain that that this diverse perspective will not only help me adapt to the challenges of college life but also bring an element of difference and freshness to my future college friendships. Please remember one thing, though: If fish balls are ever on the dining hall menu, just hand “Banana Girl" a fork!
* * *
The lesson here for essay writers is to look around your everyday lives carefully. Scenes like those immortalized here in “Banana Girl" happen all the time. The key to success is mustering the writing skills necessary to articulate these little dramas, elevating them to the status of a significance window into who you are and how you think.
TIP: Keep a journal in which you make notes of interesting happenings such as the “fish-ball" dinner party. When it's time to write your college application essays, you'll have a treasury filled with all kinds of real-life anecdotes waiting to be turned into winning essays just like “Banana Girl."
. . . and so on.
There you have it. I hope that my instruction will make your Common Application writing easier. Also, I hope that you'll use the summer to chip away at your college process. Once you begin your senior year, you'll find that time flies faster than you ever imagined. So, don't get jammed up with school work that takes away from that crucial time you'll need to manage your college applications. Trust me; you'll be glad you did!
Don't forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.