On Friday I wrote a post with four recommendations on how to do well during a college interview.
Another key component of the nerve-wracking miserable-making adrenaline-laden college application process is the common application essay.
An outstanding essay can grab the attention of the Admissions Committee.
An essay full of grammatical mistakes and clichés that says little or sounds contrived can ruin an otherwise strong application.
When I was in high school a student one year ahead of me was accepted to Harvard. Her essay was about wearing her father’s moth-eaten sweater. Her father was dead. Now that I’ve lost my mom, I see the sadness etched into her face. She turned the tragic loss of her dad into something beautiful. Not many 17-year-olds can do that.
The first essay, which you may have read on my old Mothering blog (though all the links are broken now that they’ve done a redesign), was written by my little sister Kate, who applied and was accepted early admission and is now a junior at Smith College.
The second essay was written by a Sophomore at Colorado College. Hannah also got accepted to Reed College, and she was offered a Ford Foundation Fellowship.
What stands out to me about these essays is how well crafted they are, how they tell a story, evoke feelings in the reader, and reveal so much about each young person through showing rather than telling. Wouldn’t you accept these applicants to your university?
The Things I Carry
Author’s note: I wrote this essay in response to the book The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.
I carry my violin. I start going through my scales and warm-ups, knowing that I should focus on tuning and bow strokes rather than letting my mind wander, but I can’t help it. I think of my teacher’s words and requests; he wanted me to play triplets, to go slower, to use more bow, and I try to focus back in. Because, along with my violin, I carry desire. I have a desire to please my teacher. I think back to my last lesson; Antoine had been frustrated with my sound at the beginning; it wasn’t big enough, loud enough. Then later in the lesson, with the words of my teacher ringing in my ears, there was a revelation. I had finally done it; I made a huge sound. I had felt myself being swept away in the music, my whole body engrossed in the beauty of the melody, the pitches growing louder in all the right places. My tone was clear and precise and I was perfectly in tune. I couldn’t help the smile that had spread over my face, and it only grew wider when I realized that my teacher was wearing one too. I had carried accomplishment.
But now, alone in my room, without Antoine’s encouraging words to remind me how to produce such a sound, I carry frustration. Trying to recall exactly what I’d done on that day of epiphany, I hear my bow scratch hard into the string. A wash of anger flows over me and I long for my beautiful playing to return. I put my violin down on the couch beside me, shaking out my tired hands and hoping that a break is what I need to bring back my lost music. When I pick my violin up again, carrying my instrument once more, I also carry hope. I hope that this time, my bow will find just the right pressure and speed, my fingers will land in just the right places and my sound will return with the same enlightening warmth and volume that it had at my lesson. I carry my bow, caressing the strings lovingly, pulling hard to make a tone that will grow into a wave of music. But something’s missing, something’s wrong. I remember then, what my teacher told me that lesson: I have to relax.
I take a deep breath now and I carry peace. I begin to play once more and I let go of my frustration and my anger. I drop my desire to please to the ground so that I carry only my violin and my bow. These are all I need. Now I play for only myself and I hear my sound return, more beautiful than ever. I feel myself get swept away by the notes, by the swells and falls of the melody. And finally, I carry music.
The black bear opened its mouth. I saw her discolored tongue and yellow fangs before she released a ground-rumbling roar. I froze. A scream rose in the back of my throat as my body started to shake. I was an unaccompanied 16-year-old girl trapped in the woods with a mother bear and her cub standing directly in front of me. The bear lurched toward me, with another deadly growl. She and her cub were so close–maybe ten feet away. I thought I was going to die. Survival instincts I never knew I had kicked in: I forced myself to take tiny steps backwards, keeping my eyes locked on the bear. When I was twenty feet back I turned and walked slowly away. My head was spinning, and my heart burst in my chest, but still I paced myself until I judged I was out of sight of the bear. Then, under the blue sky of a placid summer day, I exploded into a sprint and frantically ran for my life.
On a 24-hour solo in Northern California’s Marble Mountains, in the summer of 2008, that bear scared me into a new self. Every summer Ashland High School sponsors an outdoor program where thirteen students are hand-selected to participate in a wilderness quest. I was chosen to be one of them. For 11 days with 60-pound packs we hiked for eight hours a day until the muscles in our legs would shake, we had bruises on our hips, and we could go no further. The trip not only offered a chance to explore the mountain range by hiking, but every student was also expected to go alone into the woods for 24 hours where we had time to sit and reflect.
After only five days into our journey, I felt the happiest I had ever been. The mountains were exhilarating, the air was crisp, and we walked through green meadows, past trickling clear-water streams, ferns and foxtail pines brushing our shoulders. My group and I shared all the pain in struggling up impossible peaks, and all the joy of conquering them. We became family and the mountains our home. I was so consumed by the novelty of our adventure that I never thought about the surrounding wilderness and the potential dangers it posed.
Half a mile away from the bear, I ran straight into my guide. She held me as I tried to explain what I had seen in choked breaths. She listened sympathetically, but only for a minute. Then she hauled me back out on the solo. Before an hour was up, my guide had set me up in a new camp near a clear lake, spasms of fear still racking me as I watched her slim figure recede, black ponytail bobbing. I gazed at my reflection in the water for the first time in eight days. Something in the image calmed me, easing the thrashing in my head. There was dirt layered on my face, welts where mosquito had devoured me, and scratches on my cheeks. But the most prominent change was my eyes. I smiled. My eyes captured the intense fear, but also the defiance that had given me the power to run away.
I looked like a warrior.
Two year later, I realize that the incident with the bear has helped shape me into the person I am now. I had been sheltered my whole life; I had never seen the perilous nature of the world outside of what I knew. In the wilderness, I assumed that the school would protect me, but I was left with only my own instincts to protect myself. Before that moment I had taken my entire life for granted.
Though I had always challenged myself academically, after coming back alive from that solo I began to assert myself even more. I felt a renewed fervor for learning. I began to take AP classes, honors math courses, and a college English class. Usually happy to be in the background, I put myself forward and became Editor-in-Chief of the high school paper, finding an outlet for my creativity in designing each issue, and assuming a leadership position that requires me to be directive with my peers. I became the neighborhood coordinator for a food-collection organization in my town. Every month I organize the pickup of bags of food for Ashland Food Project from more than 20 of my neighbors. I’m strongly committed to being a leader, a creative writer, and a local activist. In college I plan to study journalism, sociology and poverty, environmental science, and sustainability. My trip reminded me how precious our planet really is.
I’ve never been out of America, except to visit relatives in Mexico when I was nine. But after looking in the jaws of a she bear, I’ve discovered life is too short to defer dreams. I’ve always wanted to live abroad but lacked the tenacity to organize a trip. Now, after a year of hard work, I’m finally going to step into the unknown by living in Avilés, Spain for the second half of my senior year. I will be going to school full time, learning Spanish, and teaching English at a local elementary school. Ultimately the bear saved me. She taught me to be more confident, giving me the invaluable ability to rely on myself–to dig deep and look inward–and pull out my true strength.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line, is forthcoming from Scribner (April 2013).