Ahh, the application essay. Why is it so agonizing for students worldwide? Which topic shall be chosen, A or B? Can I impress those admissions staff? Is there such a thing as too personal?
I can't recall precisely when I decided to apply to MIT Early Action. Or precisely why. It was that dream in the sky that I think I wanted more than other dreams in the sky. And so my college application season began.
My interview was at the Cosi at 13th Street and 6th Avenue with a young recent graduate named Steve. I always get really nervous at interviews. I remember nothing else about Steve (was he Course 15? 14? did he even know NYC?), but he liked the drawing I'd made while waiting for him and seemed really impressed by my response to my upbringing and family situation. Like, about to pee his pants impressed that I'd climbed so high on the life ladder. I left more than an hour later feeling like that went pretty well.
Then there's the essay. Like a good hopeful applicant, I spent weeks thinking about and working on my essay. And reworking it. Over and over again. The online submission date was November 1. Shortly before then, something amazing happened.
The website crashed.
ZOMG THE SITE CRASHED
If I recall correctly, nothing was actually lost. But for the trouble, we were granted a few extra days to submit our applications. The due date was moved to Friday, November 4th 11:59pm.
(Also known as, do you know how to procrastinate? You will soon...)
I sometimes wonder whether what happened next was a fantastic twist of fate. How much would have changed if the following had not happened?:
Early Friday evening, I decided I hated my essay. I hated it so much that I considered it broken beyond repair. So, with only a few hours before the deadline (maybe the site won't crash again?), I started my essay from scratch. The next two or three hours were a frantic night of keyboard-banging, friend-proofreading, and increasing panic. Wouldn't it have been safer to submit the overly-edited essay?
I gave MIT the new essay, and MIT gave me admission.
For those beginning their applications and perhaps working on their essays this very moment, and perhaps for those who were just curious as to what a decent college application essay is like, I share mine with you. You'll learn more about me in the process, which is really what the essay is supposed to do in the first place right? :)
(If Ms. Cleary happens to be reading this, um, well, hi. Look where I am now. :D)
Living in the graffiti-adorned projects of the Lower East Side, I’ve adjusted well to low-income living. Stuyvesant High School’s done a first-rate job on making me feel like an outcast for it.
“You can get a fee waiver once you give us a copy of your parent’s 1040 tax forms,” Ms. Cleary automatically explained.
“My parents don’t have tax forms,” I said pointedly. “They don’t fill them out.”
“Of course they file tax forms,” she shot back. “Everyone does.” After a few more minutes of fruitless discussion, I left the College Office, unsuccessful. I would pay for SAT II exams, again.
Even with fee waivers, applying to college is pricey. Sending test scores to more than 4 colleges cost money, AP exams fees are reduced but not obliterated, and I’d love to meet the genius who thought of charging a fee for applying for financial aid. When approaching Ms. Cleary for help with the CCS Profile - I didn’t know where to indicate welfare and food stamp income - she asked me which school I chose to apply to.
“M.I.T.,” I replied.
“Oh, M.I.T.?” she mused. “How ironic, that you’re applying to M.I.T. and yet you can’t fill out a form…” I don’t consider my school’s administration supportive or welcoming.
My family felt strained enough paying $57 for senior dues when I attended middle school. Being a senior at Stuy is much, much worse. So far, this year’s classes have demanded about $270 total in textbooks, workbooks, art supplies, and other expenses. When my teachers ask whether anyone will have trouble paying for their supplies, no one speaks up and an awkward silence ensues.
While academic costs have mostly been waived, high school memories are not priceless. Yearbook photos just came in, and packages cost from $86 to about $230. I’ll probably wear an old dress and take the subway to my senior prom, which will probably set me back another $160. I will not get a class ring.
Many of my friends carry $10 and $20 daily, while I get $5 on a good day. Most of their parents are middle to upper class, working as teachers, lawyers, programmers, doctors, writers, social workers, or scientists, unlike my mother who is excused from work because of illness. Some of my classmates come from private schools, and many buy prep books for exams and have been in expensive SAT prep courses since middle school. They seem unable to comprehend my situation; the blank, baffled looks on their faces upon learning I have no cable television, cell phone, or air conditioning shock me.
“We do it because we want you to be happy,” my grandmother had explained to me when giving me $60 to attend a discounted college trip. Even in a nation governed by socioeconomic class, I believe that happiness and perseverance are enough for success. Although I use second-hand paints and brushes in acrylic painting class, I know that my painting will look just as striking.
If you were to ask an admissions officer if there are any truly “bad” topics to avoid on your college application, chances are you’ll be advised to steer clear from essays about:
- winning (or losing) the “big game,”
- that horrible breakup with your girlfriend or boyfriend,
- your eyes being opened after volunteering in a third-world country, and
- the tragic loss or grave illness of a close family member.
Back when I served as an admissions officer at Barnard, I probably would have agreed. While some of these topics may seem like strong contenders initially, many essays written on these themes tend to be so overdone, it’s hard for an applicant to stand out and write about them in a way that’s both fresh and meaningful. Other themes are poor choices because students often use them as opportunities to release pent-up emotions and unwittingly turn their essays into therapy sessions that are inappropriate for the purposes of a college application.
But something happened to me recently that changed my mind. Almost one year ago, my father died from brain cancer. I was 35 at the time, married and with a young family of my own. For the two-and-a-half years that spanned between his diagnosis and his death, I found myself constantly torn between supporting my parents, caring for my children, and looking after my own well-being. For two-and-a-half years my family lived in limbo, wondering when the cancer would return, how fast it would take over his brain, and how the rest of us would possibly survive without the head of our family to guide us.
And then, a few months after my father passed, I happened to come across a student’s college application essay about his own father’s death. Brain cancer. Incurable. Reading his story, it was as though I were reliving my own father’s passing all over again. But then it hit me: I managed to pull myself through a horrific family event with the support of my husband, my sister, and a grief counselor to boot. This essay was written by a teenager who just lost the most important person in his life during one of the most stressful moments in a young person’s life. Who was I to say that this topic was too personal or too raw for him to write about? The death of his father was a major, life-changing moment that clearly shaped who this student is today.
After finishing the essay, I reflected on whether or not this writing sample would pass muster in a college admissions office.
- Did the essay successfully demonstrate the student’s personal qualities and characteristics?
- Was the essay a powerful and genuine expression of who the student is and what his passions are?
- Did the essay convey how the student might positively contribute to a campus community?
Despite the topic clearly falling into one of the four verboten categories highlighted above, this student’s essay worked. Granted, he didn’t spend the entire piece memorializing his father; rather, he wrote about his father’s death for approximately 20 percent of the essay, and wisely used the remaining space to reflect on how that experience influenced some of the choices he’s made in his own life since then. Admissions officers aren’t going to admit a student because they feel sorry for his loss or take pity on his family’s circumstances. They want to admit a student who (in addition to handling the academic load, of course) is thoughtful, motivated and will bring something unique to college.
So if the best way for an admissions officer to learn about you stems from a personal tragedy, that’s okay. But remember that your essay isn’t really about the death of your loved one; it’s about the lessons you learned from that experience and how those lessons manifest themselves in your intellect, your academics, or your extracurriculars. That’s what admissions officers want to know.