January 28, 2013

The Magic Essay

I had a friend who decided to send her daughter to Costa Rica one summer with a tool belt and a task to build houses.  The heat and the cockroaches sent her packing within a week.  Another friend took her son to witness a total solar eclipse on the Yucatan Peninsula, hoping that it would inspire a college essay.  Neither student wrote about these exotic experiences, despite the disappointment of their eager moms.

The primary college admission essay is a “personal statement.”  Many parents agonize over how to help their children find the perfect topic and write the “magic essay” that will open the doors to the finest universities in the nation.  The best essays come from the hearts and the souls of the students themselves.  Trips to Iceland, the Galapagos, or India are fascinating and wonderful opportunities, but the personal statement is not about the place.  It’s about what the students learn from or feel about that place or for that matter, from any experience – from the most unusual to the seemingly mundane.  What are their passions?  What makes them tick?  What do they think about? What do they offer a school that strives to create a community that is cohesive in spirit and yet diverse in backgrounds, interests, and goals?

True, some of the best essays I have read over the years have sometimes had international trips as their backdrops.  Others have dealt with tragedies like the loss of a parent or a sibling or the effects of September 11. But others have been about topics as diverse as passion to collect sneakers or raise exotic fish, an invention that keeps ice cream cold on a serving tray, the way that one copes with being vertically challenged or hearing impaired, the desire to save stray puppies or the joy of working with handicapped children on horseback.  The subject may be broad or narrow, but the focus is on the student’s understanding of the experience and, of course, the ability to communicate it somewhat gracefully and convincingly.

And so I found it fascinating that at the conclusion of a recent New York Times article, “Hotchkiss Students on Antarctic Trip Encounter Whales and 30-Foot Wave”,  one mom was thrilled that as a result of this experience, her son had discovered what he wanted to study in college.  What was the fringe benefit? “She told him when he left to be on the lookout for a college essay idea. Now, she said, he has one.”

Now, of course, nobody who went on this once in a lifetime opportunity expected to be hit by a 30-foot wave, and fortunately, no students were injured during the experience.  And it is quite possible that this tale of a disaster averted will indeed be fodder for a great personal statement because of what the students learned from it.  And the individual’s ability to communicate his or her perception of the impact of these experiences is the “magic” key to open those doors.

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