I met with a college essay student today and heard his first attempt at a Common Application essay produced in his high school’s five-day essay prep class. He had picked Prompt #1 (of 7), which is: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. Now let me go on record that this is usually one of the prompts I ask my students to avoid. As it turns out, 47% of students who apply to colleges using the Common Application answer this particular prompt. My logic is that going with a less popular prompt immediately marks you as a bit more adventurous and also gives you a better chance of standing out. Besides, you really do need something uniquely different so that you can make a real mark with this prompt. Alas, this boy’s great-grandfather was a significant person in both Iran and Israel and was a huge influence on this boy. So, okay, let’s assume we can get our teeth into this and move forward.His essay?
His high school counselor called it a strong first attempt. I would agree with that assessment. The boy had done a decent job of laying out the story of his great-grandfather and then how the great-grandfather’s life had inspired his own. Not bad. But here is the secret to strong personal essays: they must pull the reader in, cause them to really care about the characters, and make the reader feel something by the end of those 650 words. A lump in the throat, a wayward tear, a sniffly nose. These are indicators that the essay evoked some serious emotion. And how is that serious emotion evoked? By digging deep for the real memories that caused this boy to feel so connected to his great-grandfather, throwing in sense details (what he saw, heard, smelled, tasted, felt) to bring the scene to life, and demonstrating through concrete examples how great-granddad’s influence is still alive and well in the boy’s life. That has a chance to bring a tear.
I say to all my students, “If I don’t cry at the end of your essay, then we need to redo the essay.” That is the litmus test for every powerful (and award-winning essay) that has been produced by my many students. “Make me cry and we’re good to go,” I say. And because of some natural proclivity I have to get choked up no matter how many times I’ve heard an essay, this is an amazingly predictable outcome, provided the essay actually is touching. I do not cry on demand, but give me an open, honest and heartwarming story and you can bet the tears will flow.
So, my student and I have a game plan. He will go home and think about all the things about his great-grandfather that stood out to him and made him special. He will think about what he saw, smelled, felt, heard, or tasted that created some connection between him and this wonderful influence in his life. He will remember any stories about great-granddad that my student especially liked and bring them next time to our meeting. From there, we’ll start to build a very specific essay that combines love, affection, and influence with down-to-the-color-of-his-eyes detail.
I think we have something good cooking here. I’ll look forward to getting more of this information so we can shape this story to produce the most powerful essay possible for this 18-year-old boy.
That’s the fun of coaching the writing of these essays. I learn a lot about my students and in the process, we become good friends.
And, of course, I look forward to that moment when I’m reading the completed essay and my throat catches from some sweet detail or lesson learned and I feel the sting of tears in my eyes.
That’s when I know we’re done.
That’s a satisfying feeling.