The College Essay

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

As you may know, Noodge 1 has begun the college search. We are months away from the dreaded application process, but I can see it on the horizon every time I peek out from under my, “don’t send my boy to college” barricade.

I hear the college essay is quite an important part of the application. I’m glad I’m a writer and I can help him. Not that he’ll want my help or even need my help, but since I can’t help myself I will be offering my services.

I’m under the impression it’s beneficial for the applicant to have a moving story. Some adversity they experienced and climbed from the rubble to succeed again. That’s a lot of pressure for a teenager. Haven’t we as parents been trying to keep them from calamity at all costs? It makes me think of that Modern Family episode where Haley is trying to write her college essays and realizes she hasn’t experienced any obstacles in her life. That’s when Claire, her mother, helps her out. Funny episode.

Haley from Modern Family and Noodge 1 have a lot in common. Thank God. So, what’s he going to write about? How he couldn’t get internet while on vacation with his intact and semi-normal family? Or should he try sometimes my mother doesn’t go food shopping and I’m forced to eat the expired pickles in the fridge? How about, several times my mother has forced me to wear clothes from the hamper because she didn’t do my laundry and I never bothered to mention everything I own is dirty? And if they really want to feel sorry for him he could tell them about the times he’s been booted out of the Netflix account.

Maybe I should take him for a ride in the middle of the night, blindfolded (him not me) drop him off at a cemetery without his phone and tell him to find his way home? He could write about his crazy mother and the lessons he learned about survival, trust, and navigating by the stars. Hmmm……It would make for a great essay.




7 thoughts on “The College Essay

  1. So funny! We went through it this past fall. Anything that differentiates himself from the pack will work. The question is…what is that? It’s hard and stressful (for the parents) and I wish you and your son the best of luck!

    Did you see Spanglish? The movie was narrated by a young woman, Cristina, who was applying to Princeton and her college essay was about her childhood. It was beautiful.

  2. Stacey,

    My own niece, currently applying to colleges herself, recently solicited my editorial assistance (how about that?!) to help get her essay into shape. It is of course a tricky proposition, because you want to help them make it the best they can without doing the actual writing for them (or editing it into unrecognizability) — it has to be true to their voice and experience, even if the end result is imperfect. So my guiding principle has been Personal authenticity is preferable to compositional perfection.

    You’re certainly right: An average American eighteen-year-old doesn’t have the life experience — or the wisdom we eventually extract from that with age and perspective and the acquired skill of self-appraisal — to write some powerful testimonial to overcoming adversity! That’s not gonna happen, and it certainly isn’t going to be genuine if a young person attempts such a disquisition. As someone who has actually judged elementary-school essay contests, here’s what I’ve responded to as a reader: specificity of detail and experience. For instance, one year, the essay I awarded the top prize was a remembrance by one young student of his/her deceased grandparents (who, if I recall correctly, had died together in a car accident). The piece itself wasn’t maudlin, and I didn’t assign it first place because it pulled on my heartstrings; what I responded to, in fact, was the remarkable specificity of detail in the essay: The kid recalled things like the particular shade of his/her grandmother’s lipstick. (And there were other similar fine points, though I’ve long since forgotten them.) That he/she had made the effort to note such specific, vivid impressions was what moved me.

    So I guess my point is to encourage Noodge 1 to recall a meaningful experience — meaningful to him/her — relate that incident with as much emotional authenticity and episode-specific detail as possible, and trust that an honest expression of a personal reminiscence will be enough to resonate with a admittance officer. But definitely don’t try to impress a college with an inauthentic sob story, because you know they’ve heard them all before. Better to tell them a story they haven’t heard, even if it doesn’t involve death or divorce some other extreme formative adversity. As long as it is true to his/her unique experiences and honestly told from his/her point of view on the matter, it doesn’t need to be overtly dramatic or sentimental.

    I wish Noodge 1 good luck!


    1. Sean,
      What great advice! I hope all my readers take a look at your response. And how cool you were a judge on elementary school essays. Over the years, I have reviewed pieces my children have written and I have had to keep in mind it must sound like them. I can only encourage a train of thought. They have to express it. What would I be teaching them if I did the writing for them? My son will have to decide what that meaningful experience is for him. It could be something he experienced with a positive result or it could be when my father-in-law passed away. Unfortunately, the moments that stay with the most are either ones we worked very hard to get or suffered a great loss from. I guess that’s human nature. Now, if I could just get him to pick a few more schools to apply to….

  3. Ha ha ha. Thanks for the laugh. I remember that Modern Family episode. A great show that my husband and I watched fairly religiously for a few years. Your poor son. His life sounds terribly hard and full of teenage suffering. Just like my daughter until she became a mom and found out what real suffering is. (Lol) I’m sure he’ll come up with some terrible experience he was forced to endure, like mowing the lawn or cleaning his room. Great post, Stacey. Love your sense of humor.

  4. Diana,
    Thank you so much for your kind words! I’m honored that I made you laugh. Yeah, I’m waiting for the day when my kids become parents and they call me up and say, “I’m so sorry!!!” LOL!!

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