Desperately Seeking, Part II


You’ve done what I suggested from the previous post and brainstormed a list of topic that you might find use for the common application question. Shared them with mom and dad, but your list feels dead. Nothing is inspiring you to write. You’re also nervous because as I said in a previous post, you’ve got to showcase something unique about yourself: no soccer or band camp stories, no deceased relatives, and no family trips to Myrtle Beach. Oh, and by the way, no essays about how you’re not going to write a college essay.

Before committing to a first draft of the essay, something else for you to try that would make for getting to a good topic.

One of the most famous writing workshop exercises comes from editor Gordon Lish, who asked his writers to write about a secret, should it be known would change your life. Amy Hempel, our great American short story writer has said that this exercise lead to her much anthologized “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” This story should be required reading for every English major or future English major. It is perhaps the finest short story of the contemporary era. However, I’m off topic.

The point of Lish’s exercise is to dig into meaty topics and consider something small and personal about yourself that can be the focal point for the essay’s narrative to spin on.

Now, were not looking for deep, dark and evil secrets. Abuse, drug abuse, criminality are the kinds of college essay errors similar to writing about deceased relatives. But, let me share examples of topics of two of my students who struggled until I used the Lish prompt with them.

The first student said, “Sherlock Holmes. My dad has had me reading Sherlock Holmes stories since middle school.” The rest poured out of him, writing about what he learned about life from read about the famous sleuth. This student is now at Union. The essay topic was great because it was about reading, reading something that very few people do these days (and wasn’t about those stupid movie adaptation with Downey and Law), and showed something unique about the student.

The second student said, so quietly that I didn’t hear her at first, “Knitting.” She had never shared her love for knitting in the evenings after homework and while watching the TV. Knitting became an extended metaphor of her way of coping with stress and problem solving. She’s now a junior at SUNY Fredonia.

Who thinks that something small like Sherlock Holmes or knitting would be a topic, but there it is. The small and particular about you is what is really important. It’s not the big Himalayan pilgrimages you’ve taken, it’s that everyday thing that nobody knows.

And, if you haven’t read “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” then that’s your homework.

Common Application–First Essay Question


With the Common Application now out online and this year’s questions posted, I thought that I might discuss how to approach some of these questions.

The first question asks you to “Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” In my experience, this is the most common question in college applications, the one most applicants can get a pretty good working essay out of, and probably the one with the most danger to it. It might look easy, but it’s easy to go astray.

The part that’s the most straightforward is the part of the question that asks to write about yourself. Finding something that happened to you might require some brainstorming and some gray matter to the grindstone, but usually you get it: a summer job, a trip, a visit, an encounter, a choice made. While I’m general here, finding these experiences in the context of your own life will come. Be as specific as you can: a time, a place, a person. Don’t try to cram it all in. Instead, the focus is on one thing. Tell us the story of this one thing.

Here’s several place where students can make some mistakes:

  1. You find something meaningful and that has had impact, but isn’t really about you. I’ve seen essays reflecting on a sister’s drug use, on the death of a beloved grandparent, the loss of a sibling. All of these are important and meaningful topics, but frankly, they don’t always show the student writer. To do well at this essay, your topic and your life event has to be an event that you were front and center in as an active participant and that shows something about your personality, character and individuality.Also, the above mentioned danger topics also draw a certain amount of pity to a candidate and can feel manipulative to the readers as such. Get into college by showing you and not trying to get an admissions officer to feel bad for you.
  2. There’s a second part of the question that is easy to skip over. It’s that first word, “Evaluate.” This means that they want to see that you’ve figured out what you’ve gained from the experience. What insights or lessons or perceptions have you gained. Again, it doesn’t need to be some Siddartha-esque awaking or Joycean epiphany. Instead, just say what you didn’t know before the experience.
  3. Make sure the experiences are unique. Too often students write about playing soccer, participating in band, or the coach that made them do 1,000 push-ups. It’s hard to find that independent thing about you, but the college essay is showing how you’re different rather than the same.

In the next few days, I’ll share an essay or two that shows some of successful ways other students of mine have gone at this question. Before then, sit down and brainstorm a list of some potential topics that might help you respond to this question.

Seniors–Get out there!


It’s summer. Life is good. No homework. No required reading. No project to procrastinate on.

Junior year was good. You kept your grades up. Took advantage of your school’s college-level offerings. Did some work on those SAT vocabulary words. Did some college searches. You know that the Common Application is going to be posted any time. No worries!

What are you going to write your college essay on? The time you coached soccer to first graders when you were a freshman? Your super cool Spanish class trip to Costa Rica? The concert in band you got to play the National Anthem?

Please don’t get me wrong. These are all great experiences; however, for writing the topic of the college admissions essay, not so much. Lots of high school students have these experiences. One of the first lessons of a good application is that it shows the individualistic nature of the student. Don’t write about something that everyone else has done. Find something different.

When I urge my students to do this, they often push back and say, “I can’t climb Mt. Everest.” Unfortunately, my advice gets taken too literally. Of course, you can’t climb Everest, solve the assassination of JFK or discover some lost civilization in the jungles of Ecuador. The key is not the size but the unique quality of the experience, and most importantly, its ties to you and who you are.

My advice is to use August to do find such an experience:

  1. Take a trip someplace interesting. Again, you probably want to safari in Africa, but can’t afford to. So, find someplace local like a National Historic site, a state park, a state historic site. If you live in the Rochester area, like I do, try the National Women’s Hall of Fame or Mt. Hope Cemetery, or Ganandagan.
  2. See if you can spend a day at a business that has something to do with your major. Find out what a day in the life of your profession looks like.
  3. Visit a show at the local art gallery or museum. The Memorial Art Gallery has an exhibit on right now of Renaissance art.
  4. Try a sport or activity that you haven’t. Go sailing. Take a hike.
  5. Colleges and bookstores (more likely in the summer time than the colleges) often have interesting speakers. Go see someone speaking on a topic of personal, local or national interest.

Once you come back from any of these trips, take some notes. Write down physical details you remember. What observations did you have? Try to capture the sights, sounds, smells of your experience. What images stand out for you? Any interesting conversations? What’d you get out of your trip? What were your overall impressions? What surprised or shocked you?

Because essays need to be narrative and show the experience and you, these details can be the foundation for an interesting piece of writing about you and something you did to reveal something about yourself.

Get out there.