College essay: Honesty best policy


The thought of writing a personal statement of 250 to 500 words as part of a college application process sends chills down many students' spines. They shudder at the thought of being judged on such a little piece of writing. Some spend restless nights thinking about what Magnus Opus lies buried in the depths of their unconscious.

How can their story, most often that of a generally unscathed 17-year-old, be told in a way that is unique, putting them over the top with the admissions committee? The tension over what should go into an essay rises beyond all appropriate proportions.

Why so much pressure on a simple essay? There is an extensive amount of attention paid to this singular task. Books have been published on successful college essays, articles have been written about topics that work, and candidates themselves pontificate about how to succeed in getting into the college of their choice.

An inquiring student wonders, "Should I send chocolate chip cookies to the admissions office?" an idea straight out of a book published for the first time in the 1980s called "Essays that Work."

All this tension makes writing itself even more difficult. Anger bubbles as students feel increasingly burned out from working hard in high school and feeling resentful anyone should ask them to reveal themselves in writing when their record is evident from excellent grades and high scores on standardized tests scores. Such students will sabotage themselves with a defensive or lackluster essay.

It is an open secret never proven the parent, not the student, composed the successful essay leading to the Ivy League. Hogwash!

Although some parents may unduly intervene and dominate essay writing, taking this radical step of writing the essay in entirety is hopefully rare. It may be true some parents at their wits' end may sit down at the computer and pound ahead. Honestly, this does happen, though such aggressive interference is evident in essays that pit the grandiosity of adolescent angst and "know it all" style against parental sangfroid and platitudes that come from the aged.

Take comfort, for counselors and every college admissions office protest that they immediately sense the perspective of a 50-year-old.

After this impassioned diatribe, may I be so bold as to enter the fray and submit my own observations on steps that will facilitate the process of writing a college essay. Firstly, read the questions that are being asked and really think about which one to answer. The common application - www.commonapp.org - which is used by close to 300 schools, has five essay choices that, when carefully read, can be adapted to different personal styles.

One question is subjective, dealing with a significant event, another with a favored character from literature or politics, an admired individual, one's own topic or no essay at all. I have found many students just stop at the first option, rather than thinking about books they may have read or an issue that is important to them.

Two recent examples of students that have thought beyond the significant event are that of a very shy girl who read "Pride and Prejudice" many times and felt like the central character, Lizzie, in Jane Austin's novel, who is forthright and bold. Another student is an expert swimmer but wanted to share something different about herself with the admissions committee. Remembering a favored class in British literature, she talked about her joy of being introduced to medieval literature.

It's possible to facilitate the essay writing process by saving all journal entries and written assignments in a portfolio. These papers should be kept carefully, divided according to year and class in a folding file.

Many a worthwhile essay is a pastiche of work that has been cut and pasted together. A well-honed sentence may serve as a springboard for the imagination. One young man recalled his grandmother's red lipstick as she returned home on the subway after a long day at work. From this glimmer came memories of his deceased grandfather purchasing a left-handed baseball mitt for his right-handed grandson so he would learn to play the game. This essay ended in a juxtaposing of roles with the boy, now a young man, pushing his stroke-ridden grandfather's wheelchair into an elevator. This essay, which was on a conventional subject (a most admired person), became a beautiful statement rather than a rehashed cliché, with its focus on the applicant's sensitivity to events that have transpired in his personal history.

To state the obvious, successful applicants avoid plagiarism and paraphrasing from college essays published on the Internet. Firstly, where does this essay actually come from? Is it some glib money maker attempting to capture the ambitious college bound market or someone who really ought not being giving advice on how to write?

Secondly, the suggestion of sending chocolate chip cookies to admissions office as previously stated is old. And thirdly, avoid reading books about successful essays: these can add to confusion and take applicants away from their own source of interest: themselves.

I think back to a television show from years back called "Naked City." It began with these words: "Everyone has a story in the Naked City." Right on for the media with that one: even the seemingly most mundane topic can take on life if it is important to a writer. A case in point is a young lady with a predilection for high end expensive coffee. One day, finding herself without beans to grind, she ran out and searched hither and yon for the perfect cuppa.

An important aside. The personal statement is not the only thought-provoking writing required on applications! Supplemental forms and short answer questions can be even more telling and also should be taken seriously (though not too seriously, of course). It can be more difficult to answer a question such as "What was the best advice you have ever been given?" or "What character in a novel do you most relate to?" as to write a longer piece.

And keeping in mind that the application is your lively representative of your inner life and not a report card, try and share different aspects of your person. For example, a person who wants to study engineering might spend their lazy afternoon listening to the scores of a grand opera or strumming a banjo.

What you may know very well about yourself is completely unknown to those who will read your application. It is better to be simple than to try to impress; better to describe sitting in a café drinking coffee than fabricating a grandiose scheme. That is, unless, of course, you state the scheme is at the stage of a dream deferred.

A simple straightforward statement from the heart is more likely to make an impression then the attempt to climb Mount Olympus in 500 words. Honesty, knowledge of the schools one is applying to and enthusiasm for continuing education is what is important.

I learned this lesson when applying to graduate school in the 1970s and have tried to pass it down to my students ever since. After graduating from college with honors, I could not find a position and so applied to graduate school. My first choice was a prestigious college of education to which I wrote a personal statement that was morbid, self-pitying and angry.

A friend saw what I wrote and told me, "Mae, there is much more to you than that." Well, I took the advice to heart, and in my essay and interview at Columbia University, the truth flew. Yes, I was a former actress that worked in nightclubs and restaurants for 10 years; it was true. I represented a non-traditional eccentric candidate to this wonderful school and was one of four accepted to my chosen department.

Well, wouldn't you know it, the professor who interviewed me had worked her way through Wellesley and Harvard before finding her rebirth at Columbia. She was clearly taken with my aplomb, and although I came in with aspirations of getting a master's degree, was told to apply for the doctoral program.

Honesty, simple honesty is the basis of a strong personal statement. The first lesson in acting school is to pick up a chair and move it to center stage. Each student moves it differently, walks with a unique stride and rhythm. So, too, with college essays. The tension is unnecessary and will block the imagination from its attempt to bloom.