The Essay is Complementary

The Application Essay as Complement

What makes a good college application essay?

The obvious answer is that which gets you into the college you most want to attend, and into a few others for good measure or bragging rights. Pretty simple.

Now go write that essay. Nothing stopping you.

Easy, wasn’t it? Congratulations, you just got into college. Remember to send it in with your application before the deadline (online application sites open soon).

If the answer is so simple and direct, why is writing college application essays often so very difficult? The answer, if there is one, to this second question is that what assures a particular student of acceptance to My First Choice University will not assure another student of getting into the same school. There is no one-size-fits-all essay that guarantees any student acceptance at any one college. You can’t write to a paradigm. (Yes, your English teachers lied to you steered you in that direction for education's and efficiency’s sake.)

The essay has to complement the other aspects of your college application and help the college admissions officers make better sense of the compendium of personal metrics–grades and test scores, AP classes and extracurriculars, awards and letters of recommendation–so they can see through to the person interested in studying at their school. The essays complement what you have already done; they reveal what you already have, what is already, to use an on overworked phrase, in your DNA. We all know that stuff is pretty unique. Look, Ma, no paradigms!

And while, considering how often we leave some of it behind, DNA can be a bit troubling for those doing nefarious things, but for you, this circumstance is a good thing because you already know what you are made of, what you have done, what you have learned, and what you now want to do or learn. You know all this stuff. Go write it down, revise it a few times, proofread it, and then buy your plane ticket for the following September; rates will never be cheaper than with early ticketing. Go girl!

Why are you still reading? You’re done, right? Lie down and rest; sleep in; you deserve it. Senior year is about to start; you don’t want to be caught tired, not up to it all. So much fun ahead to be had!

Still not there yet? Well, it’s true, you’ve not really spent much time analyzing your experiences or synthesizing the lessons you’ve drawn from them. You don’t have much practice. You certainly know what it feels like to be alive, but you haven’t been assigned papers on anything more personal and exciting than the meaning of green symbols in “The Great Gatsby” or the establishment of personal values in “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Oh yes, there were those chemistry write-ups and the dissection paper for biology, but no, you haven’t stopped to ponder your life, let alone write about it in any detail for a while, maybe even since elementary school: “What Did I Did on My Summer Vacation.” Few teachers have assigned you topics in navel-gazing with only the expectations that you touch on something real about yourself and that you feel free to construct the passage in the rhetorical manner best suited to your intent.

Ackkk! Just kidding. Had a teacher assigned you such a paper, you’d have left it until 5 minutes before class and written some BS that sounded as if it came from the Pop Psychology Channel deep in your cable company’s listings. You’d have gotten a C and been happy to pass because you really needed that time to study for the AP Chem final, which you nevertheless bombed, c'est la vie. However, this all-too-likely reality doesn’t alter the outcome (>.<): you haven’t taken much time to reflect on who you are, what you have done, and why in God’s name you’ve done it (yeah, I know, your parents said you had to, but you don’t have to go that far into the weeds when explaining), nor have you had much practice writing out the results of those thoughts.

Get the zafu. Time to medicate meditate. Collect those thoughts.

Your essay should represent the very same person that also appears in all that data the colleges see, and it really, really, really helps the admissions people if you can show them that everything somehow all adds up (remember, most of them are only about 10 years older than you and hated math, too. And chemistry, especially chemistry). Certainly, this situation doesn’t call for a summation of your life, that’s already been done on the application form; indeed, it calls for the refraction of some additional light into an essential part of yourself that allows them to understand you, kinda like using something small and simple to represent something bigger and more complex, you know, like maybe using a color, yes, maybe green, as a symbol, maybe...oh...

So what do you write about? What helps these essay-weary souls see your soul clearly? Truth is, only you know. That’s why there is no paradigm to write to. Only you have seen life through your eyes. Only you have worn your shoes (why do they always wear down on the inner heels first?). Only you know what it feels like to see mehndi curling along your arms or have someone tattoo art on your....uh, yes, there. Only you can know what you experienced as your plane landed in Johannesburg, and what it meant to you (remember? that annoying kid two rows up threw his binky, hitting you in the temple, splattering some wetness, and making you swear never, never, never, and never once more, to have kids. Never. Not gonna happen).

The story’s yours, and so is the telling. This is a paper you don’t have to research. You just have to sift the data for meaning. And there aren’t any wrong answers (alright, if you say what presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently said about Jewish people and baking, that would be a kind of a wrong answer, but he’s only running for president while you’re applying for college, seeking a position at one of the most enlightened places, in theory at least, that civilized man creates).

But of course, it is an untruth to say you cannot write the wrong essay. You can–if you don’t write your essays yourself, if you try to come up with a flashy or gimmicky approach just for the sake of it, or if you simply aren’t authentic. Essay readers are looking at the whole; and they can get pretty chary, going all CSI on your application when something doesn’t quite seem to line up. Unluckily for you, there are many other applicants in line after you whose essays and data do help reveal their readiness for that college and for which readers have an easier decision (btw–CSI: Ivy League Admissions was tested in pilot, but the action was flat and Miami and Las Vegas made better film locations than various college admissions offices, so the networks didn’t produce it, sigh).

If you still haven’t written your essays yet, perhaps it is because you cannot choose what most represents you out of all the many worthy experiences you’ve had. My guess though is you are overlooking some meaningful stuff. You know, the unglamorous stuff that makes up the fabric of our lives even as it often goes unnoticed. Explore that stuff to find yourself in those experiences. The point might not be to write about that experience of everyday life, but to track back to how you came to know or appreciate something (the time you finally found the missing sock balled up at the foot of the bed may not make for scintillating reading, but that the missing sock helped you appreciate the power of remembrance despite the lack of a physical presence might have some potential). Your story about something, your presentation of it, may take a different shape than that of the quotidian manner in which you discovered it. Regardless, this reflection will help you consciously know yourself better and develop a better intuition for might best represent you in your essays.

If you are still having difficulty in writing your essays, talk to a guidance counselor, a teacher, your best friend’s mom or dad, but don’t talk to your friends or your parents. Seriously, these last few people are likely to derail you. Oh, they mean all the very best for you, but they have different ideas than you do about who you are. They think they have your number, but only you truly do. Certainly keep your parents up to speed with your drafts (if they express an interest) but accept only those critiques that help you more fully recognize what you want to write about or how you want to tell your story.

Anything else isn’t being true to your DNA. And that’s the whole point of the application essay, of the application process: to show your authentic self as only you can.