We’ll share some ideas and best practices for working on your college essay in this live webinar on October 15.
Essays that Worked
Writing a college essay is intimidating business. Just coming up with an idea, let alone writing about it, is a challenge. So, I asked for help. Mom said, “Write about how you are like each of your cats!” While I found this idea to be...well, cute...I worried that all this would say about me is that I like to eat and sleep in patches of sun. Dad said, “Write about your mental struggles after your mother and I got divorced.” While this idea was dramatic, and perhaps telling, I decided that it ran the risk of making me appear morose, which I am not, or just plain boring. Various friends told me to “be funny” or to write about a moment in my life that was particularly poignant.
All these ideas for topics were fine. I could easily have written them. But something was bothering me. I’ve always been told that the purpose of such an essay is to describe yourself to the readers, to tell them something about yourself that nothing else could. None of these topics were ones I felt could adequately explain me to a stranger in several hundred words or fewer. The root of the problem is this — at this stage in my life, I am not quite sure how to describe myself.
In middle school, or even freshman year in high school, I could have easily described myself to anyone, because I was pretty certain about who I was. I was an Irish-Italian Catholic. I was liberal. I hung out with school-focused, overachiever types. I disliked jocks and people who talked about clothes too much. I laughed at girls who liked teen idols or TV shows that I thought were stupid. I thought my parents were pretty much perfect. My favorite book was Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. I was sure I wanted to be a vet when I grew up. My life was black-and-white, this-or-that, yes-or-no. It was easy.
Some things haven’t changed since then, despite how much I seem to have changed. I’m still an Irish-Italian Catholic and a bleeding heart liberal, though my beliefs are no longer based blindly on what those things are supposed to mean. Yes, many of my friends are still the “overachiever types,” and I still value their academic intelligence, as well as my own, very much. The difference is that I no longer see “intelligence” as a single entity. I have come to respect a person’s ability to make friends, to make beautiful art or music, or to simply be a thoughtful and caring person just as much as I respect the classes they take or the kinds of books they read. Most important though, I have come to see and respect those more meaningful traits in myself.
I’m no longer sure what my favorite book is. When asked, I usually name at least 10, ranging from science fiction to Existentialist philosophy to Southern Gothic novellas. I’ve come to see my parents as people, not as icons, and have learned from both their good and bad qualities. I have no plan as to what I want to do when I grow up — only the vague idea that I want to be involved in politics, and maybe try to change the world a little bit while I’m at it.
I’ve learned that I am also many things that are not so obvious. I am a girl who sits on her back porch at midnight thinking about conflicts between determinism and free will, but I am also a girl who watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer religiously and can quote it word for word. I love my mother’s pumpkin pie, talking late at night to friends about things that we’d never reveal during the daylight, and driving with the sunroof open and the stereo turned up.
These things are all a part of me, but not the whole story. In fact, they are all things that other people could rattle off about me — things they might even suggest that I write an essay about. This essay, however, is uniquely me, just as I intend my life to be.
The past four years have been an experience in the ever-clichéd “self-discovery,” and I suspect the next four will be as well. While I feel I know more about myself now than I ever have before, I recognize that there is a lot more there that I don't know. I’m not in a rush, though. I’ve only lived for 17 years. I have the rest of my life to figure out who I am and what I’m here for — and when I do, I’ll write you an essay.
New Canaan, Conn.
“You can handle it, Matt,” said Mr. Wolf, my fourth-grade band teacher, as he lifted the heavy tuba and put it into my arms. I was surprised because I had asked for the trumpet or the saxophone as my band instrument, not the tuba. I knew Mr. Wolf meant that I was the only one who could handle the tuba. And he was right. In fourth grade, I was a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier than any of my classmates. While other students eventually played the trumpet and sax solos I would like to have tried, I dutifully set the band’s tempo with my tuba and hoped that someday we’d play a song with a tuba solo. Never happened.
Now I’m 6'3" and weigh 240 pounds. Since freshman year, my football coach has had only one place for me: the line. I was never offered the flashy positions of running back or quarterback. I had to be where size mattered.
Somehow my size has precluded any solo performances in music or sports. In fact, the only time a tuba player or a lineman gets noticed is when he screws up. But I’m philosophical about this lack of recognition because size has its compensations.
For instance, I had always worried as a child when my parents left me home alone. I thought that burglars might break into the house. Then, when I was in sixth grade, I realized that I was bigger than most of the burglars I might have to confront, so I stopped worrying about it. The burglars must have felt the same way, because none of them ever broke in.
In school, particularly middle school, I encountered my classmates’ stereotypes of what it meant to be the big kid: that I was either an uncoordinated simpleton or a nasty “tough guy.” I didn’t feel that I belonged in either category, so I worked hard to correct their expectations.
To counter the image of the big, clumsy, goofy kid that everyone laughs at, but not to his face, I resolved to become athletic and even graceful. I made sure that I played well in all the sports I went out for, even those where size was not a factor, like baseball. I also became a part of a ballroom dance class and followed it throughout high school, long after my friends had dropped out. At the annual dance performance, the members of my football team would look on in amazement from the audience as I danced waltzes, fox trots and tangos — even Russian folk dances with knee kicks. Perhaps I overcompensated a bit.
Playing off the “tough guy” stereotype, I became a bodyguard for classmates who would beg me to stand with them so they wouldn't be picked on by a bully or gang of boys. I happily agreed to accept this role.
The most peculiar thing I’ve encountered about being big is when someone wants me to be even bigger — like one of my football coaches who wants me to put on another 40 pounds. “Get in touch with the fatness that’s inside of you wanting to get out,” he said. I feel that I’m the perfect size, and even if my build could support more weight, I’m not going to do it.
One morning in seventh grade, I realized that I was taller than my brother who was two years older. My brother was so disturbed by this great milestone in our relationship that he refused to admit I was taller for another two years. In my freshman year of high school, my father discovered that I was taller than he was. Unlike my older brother’s reaction, my father was delighted. He was my greatest fan, and privately coached me in all the sports I played, especially baseball.
My father, Joseph Coppo, lost his life on September 11, 2001, in the attack on the World Trade Center. It has been a rough 16 months, but his death has given me a new perspective on my size. Two days before he died, my father came into my room as I was getting into bed. We had a long, somewhat emotional, talk, and he told me God had given me a great gift and that I should use it to my full potential. That advice he gave me, which I had taken for granted at the time, now comes back so vividly in my memory.
My father told me that I should be disciplined, take pride in myself, stand up straight and hold my head up high. Attending his funeral and the many memorial services for the 9/11 victims, I was aware that my height made me stand out at these gatherings. As I walked down the aisle at the end of his service, I realized that everyone was looking straight at me. It was one of the hardest things I will ever have to do. I tried to appear dignified and brave in the hope that my calm, tall presence would comfort my family and friends and give them the courage to make it through.
Looking forward, I know that my size will enable me to accomplish many positive things, whether in college, in a career or in just helping others. Everyday I think of the words my father spoke to me, and I pray that I’ll “grow” to be half the man he was.
Perhaps it wasn’t wise to chew and swallow a handful of sand the day I was given my first sandbox, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. My mother told me before she let me outside to play that I was not to eat it. Having played in the sand at my preschool, I couldn’t imagine then why anyone would want to put the gritty stuff in one’s mouth. So, impatient to go out to play, I just nodded rather than question her cautionary statement. I tottered barefoot up the wooden steps to the backyard and saw for the first time the object that would occupy so much of my time in the weeks to come.
It lay in the partial shade of a large oak tree, squat and green and shaped like a turtle. As I struggled with the heavy, awkward plastic cover, only the promise of day after glorious day outside in the dappled light kept me from dropping the cover and moving on to less difficult pastimes. Perseverance paid off, however, and as soon as the lid slid the rest of the way off, I knew my effort had been worth it.
The sand was beautiful and pristine, composed of white, sparkling crystals that shone like snow, or even sugar. It was free of all the nasty surprises one finds in a preschool’s sandbox: no pebbles, sand-encrusted bits of candy or broken-off arms from forgotten G.I. Joe soldiers, abandoned heartlessly during their desert reconnaissance missions.
No, this sand was breathtaking and exquisite. For a reason that I still don’t quite understand, my mother’s cautionary tones came floating back to me on the summer breeze as I stepped into the box and happily wriggled my grass-stained toes in the glorious white expanse. Chewing on a lock of hair, I contemplated my dilemma. And certainly it was a dilemma, for if my mother had taken such pains to forbid me to eat this fascinating material, there had to be some reason for me to want to taste it in the first place.
Perhaps it was a precocious interest in science, in experimenting and finding my own answers, that led me to my final decision on the matter. It may have been the beginning of the avid curiosity about the world around me that has stuck with me even today, or a budding interest in questioning the laws and boundaries of society. It may have even simply been a rebellious desire to be bad, to do something that I knew I shouldn’t do.
Whatever the reason, my decision came to me after only a moment’s hesitation.
So I curled my fingers around a handful, delighting in the smooth feel of the crystals slipping between them, and lifted it to my mouth. It was delicious — the guilty taste of being bad, I mean, of discovering new sensations and finding answers, of stepping outside the accepted rules of our anti-sand-consumption society; not the sand. The sand was, to be honest, rather disappointing.
I was rushing to feed the hissing baby owl when ... splat! The dish of quartered mice fell from my hands, its gooey contents scattering all over the floor of the infirmary. I grabbed a bottle of disinfectant and some paper towels, and fell to my knees to clean up the mess.
Two weeks prior, I had volunteered to raise three newborn American barn owls. When the director of a local wildlife rehabilitation center first approached me and asked if I would be interested in raising “the babies,” as the incoming owls were referred to, I was overjoyed! Twelve years earlier, the rehab center had received a pair of barn owls, and since then more than 100 of them have been bred and released. Thoughts poured through my head of hours happily spent raising these babies and working with them until they were fully grown. Tossing them up into the sky where they would begin their lives anew in the wild would be so incredibly rewarding. I had released countless “rehabbed” animals prior to this, but I had never experienced the privilege of releasing an owl that I had raised. As I pulled the owls from the nest — a precautionary measure in case the parents decide to eat — I was ecstatic; I felt that I was really making a difference helping New York State’s most endangered raptor make a comeback.
However, I had assumed incorrectly that we were going to release all of them. In fact, two of the owls were to be released, but the third owl was to be imprinted and used as an educational animal. For the center to keep one owl when his two siblings were going to be freed seemed cruel, and this angered me. Sensing my anger, our director suggested that before I condemn the plan for this owl, I should at least go out and help with the educational assignment, to see what is accomplished. While still ready to denounce this plan as a horrible use of an owl, I reluctantly agreed to go.
It was on this first educational assignment that I realized how much could be accomplished through an animal education program — more, in some cases, than the aggregate efforts of all of the rehabilitators. I found that I had been naive in my assumption that most people knew as much about wildlife as I did, and that they shared my respect for animals. The children at the school where I spoke had never seen the owls or the opossum that I showed them, though both were common inhabitants of our area. Many of them had never even heard of an ocelot. They were full of questions and eager to know more. As my hour-long presentation concluded, I found my mind wandering, revisiting the time when I was 7-years-old, sitting cross-legged on the floor at my elementary school, enraptured by my first owl. It was then that I realized that I was once a “city boy” who thought wild animals only lived in Africa. I had always loved animals, but when the rehab center volunteers visited my school, they shared with me knowledge that has changed the way I experience the outdoors, and consequently has had a marked influence on paths — both literally and figuratively — that I have chosen.
Thus, after 10 years I have come full circle; now I am the teacher, and in front of me are rooms full of 6- and 7-year-olds who, with the “help” of the owls, are learning to view nature in a whole new light. While I am not “saving the world,” I am helping safeguard the owl’s future. Furthermore, I am promoting a deeper environmental consciousness among the people that I teach, while at the same time exposing them to something that I love.
That afternoon, I returned from the educational assignment with a new-found sense of purpose and happily commenced the task at hand É feeding little pieces of mice to Athena, our newest educational ambassador.
As I slunk into my junior year AP English class, I avoided making eye contact with my teacher, Dr. Heitzman. With the brim of my baseball cap pulled down to hide my face, my first priority was to find a nice hiding spot in the back of the room. It was the first week of school, and Dr. Heitzman was handing back our essays on our summer reading assignment. I had become quite accustomed to dealing with teachers who had “had the pleasure of teaching" my ever-so-talented, brilliant, saintly, near-perfect, God-like (in fact, she might even be in the Rolodex at the White House and Vatican) sister, Leslie. Dr. Heitzman had already made the connection that I was “Leslie’s brother” and assured me that she only expected half the excellence that Leslie demonstrated and that would still guarantee me a solid A.
As I was attempting to disappear into my seat, Dr. Heitzman announced to the class that a rare occurrence had taken place; someone’s essay had earned an A+. Knowing it could not be mine, I slouched even further into my chair. Dr. Heitzman continued, “Sorry to disappoint the female population in the class, but this time the best essay was written by a boy.” At first this meant nothing to me. However, since I was also taking AP Probability and Statistics and I realized there were only three males in the class, statistically I concluded that I had a 33 1/3 percent chance of being that guy. I sat up straight and lifted the brim of my hat above my eyes. Watching her intently, I suddenly found myself praying that her panning eyes would find me in the back of the room. As she got out of her seat and came toward my desk, my pulse quickened, and I almost fell out of my chair. She handed me my essay, requesting that I read it to the rest of the class.
I was so shocked that I almost tripped on my way up to the front of the room and mispronounced my own name when I began reading. Then as I began noticing the comments on the paper, they simply read, “HAHAHAHA.” It was clear she thought my essay was funny. “Wait a minute É I am pretty darn funny,” it dawned on me. I began reading about how The Jungle had almost convinced me, a confirmed carnivore, to join my vegetarian sister in her devotion to soy products. Surprisingly, the normally staid Dr. Heitzman began to crack up laughing. The more she laughed, the more I tried to be funny. It was at that point that I knew that I was going to try to make Dr. Heitzman laugh at everything that I did all year.
I have never worked so hard to impress a teacher. Not only would I make my essays funny, but I extended my humor to journal entries, my vocabulary definitions, my poetic analyses, my daily reports and my verbal responses. I found myself running to class sometimes to be the first in line to grab a seat in the front row so I could be there to look Dr. Heitzman in the eye. My final project of the year best demonstrates how far I went to get a laugh out of Dr. Heitzman. Each student in the class was to put on a “how to” demonstration of anything they wanted, so I decided to teach everyone how to properly apply makeup. (OK, it was a dare.) I am a basketball and soccer player, your typical “jock,” so I took everyone by surprise with my project. As I began applying sparkly blue eye shadow, the better to bring out my blue eyes, I looked out into the faces of my classmates and saw a mixture of disbelief and horror. But it was worth it because Dr. Heitzman was clutching the desk to keep from falling to the floor with laughter. (And I won the bet.) It was that bet that capped off a year that changed me considerably — a year in which a “math guy” discovered he liked to write and to read good literature and that English was his favorite class.
If only every student were lucky enough to have a Dr. Heitzman. If only every person were lucky enough to know someone who pushed, motivated, encouraged, rewarded, shaped and inspired them É and laughed. That year I did not follow in the footsteps of my sister. That year I was Chase Garbarino, Dr. Heitzman's funniest student ever.
For the past 10 years, my dad and I have attended the same school — he as an administrator and I as a student. While my friends enjoyed the escape from parents that school provided, I could count on my dad taking me to school, bumping into him regularly during the day and riding home with him each and every afternoon. It’s been interesting. Our relationship, in and out of school, has been totally unpredictable.
When I was younger, all that my dad said was doctrine and anything he did I, naturally, copied. We played rocket ship games in the pool, stayed up too late reading bedtime stories and ran through the corn mazes at Terhune’s Orchard. In second grade, I broke my wrist running toward my dad and never would have guessed that, just a few years later, I would sprain my ankle running away from him.
As I grew older, he was no longer as cool as he used to be. He became the enemy — a total embarrassment. He wore his socks too high and whistled too loudly. He listened to horrific country music while carpooling six other 12- year-old girls to soccer games. In front of my friends, his bold laugh paralyzed me.
However, the catastrophes that occurred in school were by far the worst. On Halloween, in seventh grade, my class went outside to watch the Lower School Halloween parade. To my surprise, my father had dressed up as Chewbacca from Star Wars, sound effects included, and was leading the march around the school. In fifth grade he, the only father, came to our Girl Scout retreat, guitar in hand, and made up songs (which in hindsight seem propagandistic) like, “Boys are stupid, boys are dumb, boys just don't know how to have fun!” Just kill me. Every time he spoke I wanted to crawl away. He invaded my privacy, humiliated me in front of my friends and seemed to be the least cool parent ever.
This struggle continued into high school, but over the last two years we somehow began to find a balance. Around the time of my 11th-grade physics project, things started to change. The assignment was to build a balsa wood bridge with the best strength-to-weight ratio. The entire junior class and the two physics teachers participated — and so did my dad. To make a long story short, he blew away all the competition by a considerable margin. Embarrassed, as usual, I fled the scene. However, later when my friends were marveling about the strength of my dad’s bridge, I found that mixed in with my embarrassment was a touch of pride.
I had needed a third party to show me what I appreciated in my dad; it wasn’t the fact that he’d won, it wasn’t even the fact that my friends were admiring him for it, it was more basic than all of that. Subconsciously I was beginning to realize that what I liked about him were the same things I liked about myself. No matter how much I had tried to resist him, he still influenced me. I began to recognize that we have many of the same values and sometimes the same opinions; most remarkable of all, we even have the same sense of humor! I used to feel that he did a lot of what he did just to bug me, but now I have enough distance to see that those weren’t his intentions at all. Everything parents do when you’re 13 is humiliating because it’s the age when kids are trying to define themselves and fit in. I knew I wanted to be independent and cool, and it just wasn't cool to have a 45-year-old dad who dresses up in costumes and tells jokes. I have decided that, in the end, he might have been a little more sensitive toward my obvious teenage insecurities, but then I shouldn’t have taken it all so seriously. Arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong on the details of some of these stories is now something we joke about.
The relationship I have developed with my dad over the years is the first that has enabled me to look back and see how I’ve grown. At this early stage in my life when I still have so many things to learn, I feel fortunate to have such an unusual father to put it all into perspective.
Do you remember how kindergarten was? Everyone would play together. Sometimes you didn't even know the person's name, but if she was in the sandbox too, you were friends. I don't know when, but somewhere along the way we begin to change. We start noticing each other’s differences. People react to the varying personalities and upbringings they encounter in others. Some don’t notice them; some notice them but accept them. Others fear them and some ridicule them. I think most children ridicule because it's easy and instinctive. Whatever the reason, when it starts to happen, that happy classroom full of bubbly little kindergartners playing together is destroyed, and the magic doesn’t come back. . .
The old rust from the porch swing rubbed steadily as we sat there, motionless. I didn’t know what to say and neither did he. It was a long, sultry day in the middle of May and the irritating gnats were buzzing, while my long brown ponytail stuck to the nape of my neck. But as far as we were concerned, our worlds had come to an end. And it wasn’t the gnats, nor was it my brown ponytail. “Can’t you think of anything reasonable to say?” I thought to myself, “You've been best friends forever, and you knew her death was inevitable. She’d been battling the cancer for two years.” But, of course, no words formed on my tongue, so nothing came out. And he just sat there, void of any facial expression or emotion —I couldn’t blame him. She wasn’t just his mother; she was also mine. She read me Goodnight Moon when I slept over, and she made me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches just the way I like them — with chunky peanut butter, not smooth. So, we sat there, the two of us, for the rest of the afternoon and into the night listening to our silence — the loudest sound of all. Just like it had always been — Sarah and Michael.
“Saraaaaah. . .,” he whined into the receiver, “I’m sorry, but I really can’t. She asked me out,” he stated, as though she having asked him somehow made the blow less severe.
“Listen,” I replied, “it’s fine, really. I’ll just find someone else to give the ticket to. Everyone is dying to see the concert. I’m sure it’ll be cake finding someone else to go. Have a good time with her,” I said as I hung up the receiver. I stood there, shocked. I couldn’t believe that he was ditching me and the Counting Crows for a date with some bimbo who spends her time shopping, weighing herself and having deep, intellectual conversations about Prada purses and Steve Madden shoes. The real issue at hand, though, was that these girls knew who I was: “Miss I-Have-An-Opinion-About-Everything.” I had beliefs and was never afraid to voice them. No, not opinions on the ideal weight for a 5'7" model, but opinions on abortion, our role in the Middle East and why Sylvia Plath’s literature far supercedes that of Ernest Hemingway. As one can see, this slight disparity between ideal weights and Israel was enough for “the girls” and myself to never really converse — which was precisely why I had no idea what they wanted from Michael. He and I shared this love for all issues regarding the world. We spent countless nights on his rooftop drinking vanilla milkshakes and arguing over the validity of religion, not the validity of Kate Spade purses. So what were these girls plotting? I didn’t know it at the time, partly because I was so young and naive, and partly because I was late for the Counting Crows, but this was only the beginning.
Less than a month later, everything had changed. Michael had dated every girl in that clique and got “cooler” as each day went by, but he drifted farther and farther away from me.
“Eww . . .look who it is; it's the book-worm!” they would shout, with Michael standing right beside them, his head down looking at the ground, his hands fidgeting in his pockets. One day when the routine teasing had stopped, one girl turned to Michael and said, “She is a loser! Don't you think, Michael?” And without looking up at me, he mumbled, “Yes.”
Of course, as time progressed, the hassling dwindled. They realized it wasn’t bothering me, and I wasn’t submitting to their pettiness. But never again did Michael and I get to add another page to our book of life-altering moments. He wasn’t the Michael who sat on my porch. He wasn't the Michael who shared my childhood. He had become someone I no longer knew.
Now, when I pass Michael in the school hallways, we don’t so much as glance at each other. That portion of our lives is long over. But if I’m working at the library, shelving books, and come upon Goodnight Moon, or if I’m babysitting and making Cameron his favorite — a peanut butter sandwich — or if I’m in my car listening to the Counting Crows — still my favorite, I’ll think of Michael. My memories are nothing but good — why wouldn’t they be? Here is the boy who gave me friendship, showed me fun and taught me how to be my own person and always do things for myself. Yes, people do change. Michael showed me that people value different things, and people want different things out of life. He helped me to discover my true ideas and beliefs, two things I’ve never had to question. I still argue over abortion, religion and politics with my own opinionated friends, but I will never live life according to anyone’s rules except my own. While what he became hurts, what he once was makes me smile — over Goodnight Moon, chunky peanut butter or the Counting Crows.
Alice Dou Wang
West Chester, Pa.
My violin’s name is Philip. He’s not as expensive or as strong-sounding as the other violins in my ensemble, but he’s the only one with a name. I named him after Philip Nolan, the character in Edward Everett Hale’s The Man Without a Country, a book that epitomizes my feelings about patriotism and love of country, a feeling that is second only to my love of God and music.
I have broken many hairs on my bow (whose name is Joseph) from playing too intensely on my violin. It’s pretty easy to make classical music sound ugly and angry, and although it’s not intended to sound that way, the good thing about bad music (and the bad thing about good music) is that it doesn’t last for very long, and you don’t remember it for very long afterward.
Music is the most ephemeral art. No piece of music is ever played the same way twice, and as soon as a sound, a note or a feeling has been produced, it is gone, no matter how valiantly I try to recapture it. Such is my desperation to hold onto Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations, played Feb. 26, 2000, in an All-State Orchestra rehearsal. That was the moment when I discovered music, or rather, discovered myself, the orchestra, my violin, my passion and my purpose in life. Under the baton of a brilliant conductor, who knew music’s secret which had yet to reveal itself to us, the entire orchestra was swept away with this short but beautiful piece of music, which nobody had practiced beforehand because it looked too easy. The first time we ever played it as an orchestra was the most magical, and though all the violinists and cellists begged the conductor to spend more rehearsal time on it, “Nimrod” was never the same as when it had crept up on us, unknowing, and astounded us with its profoundness and simplicity.
That was before Philip, when the violin under my chin was a much larger and rougher one named Dante (a token to my infatuation with The Divine Comedy). Since Philip’s christening a year ago, we have had many more ephemeral moments of timelessness. I have also discovered another instrument whose music awes even more — my voice. I have not yet named my voice, but maybe I should. It would have to be some thick, easy name to complement my untrained alto voice, like Dean or Richard. (A male name of course, because I like men.) Or maybe a tribute to my love of history and my historical heroes. Yes, Alexander Hamilton sounds perfect.