In preparation for a segment on NBC’s “Today” show this morning, I reached out to the admissions offices at the University of Virginia and Occidental College in California for examples of essays that they considered memorable — for good, or ill.
Before I share some of these samples, a caveat (one familiar to regular readers of this blog): while it can be instructive to read actual college admissions essays, trying to copy a particular approach — or in some cases avoid it — can be perilous. That’s because how one responds to an essay can be an intensely personal experience.
That said, I would argue that there are some basic lessons to be gleaned from the following examples. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an essay that was not especially well received at the University of Virginia, in part because the writer misjudged the age and sensibility of his or her audience:
John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ was sung by Fox’s new show, ‘Glee.’ In one particular episode, a deaf glee club performed this song. I heard it before when John Lennon sang it: unfortunately I did not care much for it. When I watched this episode while the deaf adolescents were singing it, and soon joined by another glee club, it surprisingly affected me…
John Lennon sang it like a professional, but what he did not have was the emotion behind the words. He sang it more staccato than legato. He sang it like it was his job, and nothing more. These singers from Glee sang with powerful emotions. …
Another essay, also musical in focus, got a more appreciative read at U.V.A.:
I strode in front of 400 frenzied eighth graders with my arm slung over my Fender Stratocaster guitar — it actually belonged to my mother — and launched into the first few chords of Nirvana’s ‘Lithium.’ My hair dangled so low over my face that I couldn’t see the crowd in front of me as I shouted ‘yeah, yeah’ in my squeaky teenage voice. I had almost forgotten that less than a year ago I had been a kid whose excitement came from waiting for the next History Channel documentary.
It was during the awkward, hormonal summer between seventh and eighth grade when I first heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ The song shocked my senses — until that point my musical cosmos consisted mainly of my father’s Beatles CDs.
I would argue that the admissions committee was able to relate a little more to this essay than the first. And it was certainly more evocative and detailed. It also conveyed more about the writer (and applicant) — a crucial quality in a college admissions essay.
I turn, now, to excerpts from a recent essay that struck a visceral chord within the admissions office at Occidental (where, as an aside, President Obama began his college career):
My head throbbed as I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself to give up.
‘Come on, Ashley. Put the pencil down. Just put the pencil down and go to bed,’ I told myself sternly. I had been hard at work for hours — brutal, mind-numbing hours. I groaned as I moved over to my bed, collapsing in a pile of blankets and closing my eyes.
I lay there for a moment or two, gathering strength, gaining courage. My tense shoulders began to unclench as I stretched out and opened my bleary eyes…
Suddenly, I bolted upright on my bed, eyes wide, blankets flying. Everything had fallen into place. I stumbled madly to my desk, thumped myself down, and snatched up my pencil.
‘I’ve got it! That’s it!’ I whooped, scribbling furiously, as my brother pounded on my wall for silence.
I had just won another skirmish in my ongoing battle with the crossword puzzle.
What worked here? I’m told the admissions officers appreciated how the writer conveyed her love of words — and in the process told them much about herself. As a writer, I admired the way she built a sense of mystery at the outset, one that served to draw the reader in.
I’ll close with an attempt at metaphor that fell a bit flat, at least in its reception at Occidental. The applicant writes:
I believe in jello; a silly greeting, tasty dessert, or the answer to life as we know it?
Factor #1: Have you ever tried to make jello? It takes patience. First you have to boil the water; then mix it with powder, stirring for two minutes; then finally adding the cold water and putting it in the fridge for forty-five minutes. Think about the creation of people…
To share your own thoughts on essay strategies — and, perhaps, some excerpts of your own — please use the comment box below.
As far as I know, no one’s come up with a similarly incisive formula for placing an article on The New York Times’s most e-mailed list. But one way to appear there is to have something new — or smart, or furious, or funny — to say about college admissions and their attending agonies. It’s a topic that roils the collective gut.
The admissions process, as Andrew Ferguson puts it in his new book, “Crazy U,” entangles not just our pocketbooks but everything else that, besides world peace and cocktail hour, matters to parents: “our vanities, our social ambitions and class insecurities, and most profoundly our love and hopes for our children.”
Mr. Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, and he’s a valiant guide through this emotional territory. He’s got a big, beating heart, but he tucks it behind a dry prose style that owes a little bit to Mark Twain and Tom Wolfe — to name the first two white-suited writers who come to mind — and also to Dave Barry (who I suspect wears Dockers).
He made me laugh early, and often. Why do high school kids look so disoriented on SAT day? It’s not the test. It’s that their cellphones have been pried from their clammy fingers. “None of them had gone four hours without sending a text message,” Mr. Ferguson writes, “since middle school.”
“Crazy U” is a chronicle of Mr. Ferguson’s attempts to help place his son, who is 16 when this mini-odyssey begins, in a decent college. Mr. Ferguson’s boy (he is never named) is only an average student, and his father fears for him in a process that’s become a nationwide talent hunt favoring teenage extroverts and self-marketers. “I wasn’t sure,” he writes, “my son had the personality for it.” He means that as a compliment.
As this story moves forward, Mr. Ferguson makes short, shrewd detours into areas that include: the history of American education, how college guidebooks compile their rankings, the SAT tests and its critics, and the headache-making intricacies of college loans and financial aid. He talks to an expensive admissions guru who learns of his late start and fumbling progress and says, smiling: “Oooooh. Baaaaaaad Daaaaaad.”
These detours might have been, as they often are in memoirish surveys like this one, potted histories: breaded, deep-fried, dead on the palate. Mr. Ferguson’s taste buds are wide awake as he samples this material. His chapter on the SAT is a fine, provocative example. It may invite some flaming e-mail into his in-box.
He reminds us that the SAT was viewed, upon its introduction, as a liberal reform — a breakthrough for meritocracy, a way to jettison the old-boy network that fenced out minorities and nonlegacies. “The SAT was thought to democratize and objectify what would otherwise have been a chaotic and arbitrary process of selection open to favoritism and corruption,” he says.
The test, while imperfect, does a decent job of predicting a student’s grades in college, he notes. He takes seriously complaints that the test favors wealthier students. But he quotes one education professor who says, flatly, that for a million reasons — all of them unfair — it is “impossible to find a measure of academic achievement that is unrelated to family income.”
He agrees that more African-American and Hispanic students need to be enrolled in good colleges. But he is wary of those who would concoct tests simply to favor desired applicants. About one well-meaning psychologist who is attempting to do this, he writes warily, as if he were describing the experiments of Soviet-era scientists, “It’s a kind of reverse engineering: he knows the results he wants, he just needs the right test to give them to him.”
“Crazy U” is not, for the most part, political. You read this thing for Mr. Ferguson’s frazzled observations about every step of the process. He learns to fear “that feral look of parental ambition.” He observes the hypocritical way colleges pretend to loathe the guidebooks that rank them; yet if they get a good write-up, they “wave it around like a bride’s garter belt.” He disparages, tongue only slightly in cheek, “the poetry-writing ganja heads who slump out of Brown.”
He is bitterly funny about the (sometimes very) personal essays students are forced to include with their college applications. These essays are “a relatively new idea, and very baby boomerish,” he says. He asks: “Who are they to force a catharsis on 17-year-olds?”
Students who dislike talking about themselves, whose every sentence is not “a little stink bomb of braggadocio,” are at a disadvantage. “Once the larger culture considered reticence a virtue,” he writes. “Now it’s cause for suspicion or evidence of derangement.”
Mr. Ferguson is a graduate of Occidental, a liberal arts college in Los Angeles. His son, after a few nail-biting moments, gets into an institution he likes, a big place that Mr. Ferguson refers to only as BSU, for big state university. His son seems to love it, even if his father is less sanguine. Mr. Ferguson describes BSU’s graceless dorm architecture this way: “DMV, Provo, Utah, 1972.”
Let me not overpraise “Crazy U.” But its slimness and modesty are what’s winning about it. It’s a calm, amusing, low-key meditation on a subject that is anything but calm, amusing or low key. Many parents will grip it, I suspect, as if it were a cold compress they might apply to their fevered foreheads.
Mr. Ferguson is the kind of father who fears — and maybe hopes a little too — that his son’s college years will “be as reckless, wasteful, and thrilling as mine.” Bad dad? No way.