Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bad Topic 2

Another way to waste the application essay is to omit the evidence. You are working to show who you are. You have thoughts about that, reflections on what you've learned or done. But if you don't give the reader evidence of the truth of your assertions, then, as with a school essay, you're wasting paper.

Remember how your teachers kept saying "Show, don't tell"? Same deal here.

My parents have always been there for me.

Glad to hear it. But show the reader what you mean

My Mom--and surprisingly often my step-dad, too--stood on the sidelines, even when their shoes filled with water, to see me get muddy, get mugged, and (once in awhile) score a goal. I believe you.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bad Topic

A lot of advice columns and wasted breath is spent telling kids what they shouldn't write about. Hopefully, you already understand that there are no wrong topics, as long as you are writing about YOU. Keep your strengths and personality tight in the cross-hairs, and you can't miss.

But are there wrong topics? Should you stay away from a trip, a school play, a team, the divorce, an illness? Not if you can write about these topics and show something meaningful about yourself in the process.

One wrong topic, for sure, is "what they want to hear." What do admission counselors want to hear? Just a little bit of vivid info about you. Praise of the excellence of their world-class institution: no thanks. Encomiums to the faculty based on your occasional attendance at football games with your alumni parents: not so much. Your plans to cure cancer while toiling in their labs: I think not. Just "tell us about yourself." That's quite enough.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Think Small

Although the colleges are pointing you toward big topics, asking you for a significant event or an issue of global importance, it's best to think small.

I blame the colleges a little for their wording. By using the word "significant," they suggest that there are subjects in everyone's life that fall into a sort of MAJOR EVENT category. And probably, at the end of your life, you'll think there were two or three of those. But at 17--give me a break. I really hope nothing profound, devastating, or horrific has happened to you. But I've talked to kids who actually thought it would have been a little more helpful if the parents had gotten a divorce--that's the least they could do to provide good material. In fact, sometimes writers are tempted to "borrrow suffering" for this topic and end up writing about someone they know who knew someone who's uncle died in the World Trade Center collapse. Or a friend who's Mom is now tragically ill.

Don't do this. The significance is something you add, not something inherent in the event. We all know a look, an hour, a pair of green sneakers, a forgotten photo, a word from a great teacher, a new book can have a big impact.

Once you've decided what you want to convey about yourself, think small and make the event important by what you tell us about it, not by the fact it ought to have qualified for Ripley's Believe It or Not. Think small....and make that small event significant. Otherwise, you'll have to start searching through your life for tragedy.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Looking for a Lens

Remember that your list is a list of characteristics you want the college to know about. It's a list of personal strengths and talents. Qualities that recommend you for inclusion into a group. It's not resume items or things you've accomplished.

When a student says "I'm writing about my trip to France" I worry that they are thinking that colleges need kids who've been to France. WRONG.

Colleges need students who are thoughtful, creative, energetic--they need enthusiastic organizers, curious researchers, and open-minded thinkers--young people who will test and challenge the ideas around them. So fill your list with personal characteristics and then find a lens through which your reader can see one of them.

In the end, the essay might tell something about your month in Aix, but your topic should be your enthusiasm or your flexibility or your insight. Whatever events, incidents, or conversations you write about should illuminate who you are, not what you did.