“He wrote about his genitalia, and how he was under-endowed,” Motto told me. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”
Motto, who was an assistant director of admissions at Yale from 2001 to 2003 and evaluated applications part time from 2007 to 2008, said that essays as shocking as those two were a small minority. Other people who have screened college applications or coached applicants through the admissions process echoed that assessment.
But they also noted, as he did, an impulse in many essay writers to tug readers into the most intimate corners of their lives and to use unfiltered frankness as a way to grab attention. In some of the essays that students begin to draft and some of the essays that they actually wind up submitting, there are accounts of , sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, , . Sally Rubenstone, one of the authors of the “Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions,” has called this “the -ization of the college admissions essay,” referring to the host of one of the TV talk shows best known for putting private melodrama on a public stage.
Stephen Friedfeld, one of the founders of AcceptU, an admissions consulting firm, told me that in the essay of a student he and his colleagues worked with this year, he encountered a disorder he’d never heard of before: cyclic syndrome. And Friedfeld and his colleagues huddled over the wisdom of the student’s account of his struggle with it. Would it seem too gross? Too woe-is-me?
Their solution was to encourage the student to emphasize the medical education that he’d undertaken in trying to understand his ailment. They also recommended that he inch up to the topic and inject some disarming humor. Friedfeld said that the final essay began something like this: “In my Mom’s car? Yep, I’ve done it there. As I’m waiting in line to eat my lunch in school? Yep, I’ve done it there.” The “it” was left vague for a few sentences.
Right now, during the summer months between the junior and senior years of high school, many kids who’ll be putting together their college applications in the fall start to sweat the sorts of essays they’ll write. And as they contemplate potential topics, some of them go to highly emotional places.
“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”
She’ll shepherd students through four or more drafts. Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.
Hernandez, Jager-Hyman and others in the booming admissions-counseling business try to steer students away from excessively and awkwardly naked testimonials, which can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.
“Admissions officers pay as much attention to students’ choice of essay topic as they do to the details in their essays,” Motto told me.
He added that admissions officers can sniff out an essay that a student got too much help on, and he told me a funny story about one student he counseled. He said that the boy’s parents “came up with what they thought was the perfect college essay,” which described the boy as the product of “an exceptionally difficult , with many ups and downs, trips to the hospital, various doctor visits.”
“The parents drafted a sketch of the essay and thought it was terrific,” Motto said. Then they showed it to their son, “and he pointed out that everything mentioned happened before he was born.” He ended up choosing a topic that spoke to his post-utero life as a math lover who found a way to use those skills to help patients at a physical rehabilitation center.
THE blind spots and miscalculations that enter into the essay-writing process reflect the ferocious determination of parents and children to impress the gatekeepers at elite schools, which accept an ever smaller percentage of applicants. Students are convinced that they have to package themselves and communicate in entirely distinctive fashions.
“We argue that one of the ways to help your case is to show that you have a voice,” said André Phillips, the senior associate director of recruitment and outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But in that effort, sometimes students cross the line. In trying to be provocative, sometimes students miss the point.”
Motto said that one Yale applicant “actually described himself as one of the world’s great Casanovas” and said that his amazing looks inspired envy in other boys and competition among girls vying for his affection.
In response to several essays about emotional trauma, Motto contacted the students’ secondary schools to make sure that the applicants were O.K. He said he called the guidance counselor at the school of the girl who had urinated on herself, expressing concern about the essay and about whether she might be sabotaging her own application. He said that the counselor was aware of the essay and as baffled by it as Motto was.
The girl didn’t get into Yale, Motto said. Neither did the boy who mulled his genitalia. And neither did Casanova. There were apparently limits to the reach of his legendary sexual magnetism, and the Gothic spires and ivy-covered walls of a certain campus in lay beyond them.Continue reading the main story
Many of us faced challenges in our formative years and we struggled with them. Some of those struggles might have changed who we are or how we later approached life. Marilyn Campbell is an overcomer. She wrestled with shyness in her young years. Before you read her essay, learn a little more about Marilyn’s background from an update she sent to me:
“I never did quite get the opportunity to thank you [for helping me develop my essay]. Regarding my college process:
I applied to three schools early action: Harvard University, Brown University, and Georgetown University; I applied to Tulane University as a backup school regular decision (it can be considered a backup for those people who reside in-state).
I am happy to say that I was accepted at Brown, at Georgetown (thank you very much!), and at Tulane; I was deferred from Harvard; I am not applying to any more schools.
If there’s something I learned about applying to colleges and watching my friends apply to them, I would recommend applying to as many early action schools as possible by the deadlines. This takes away the stress and work of doing several applications at a very busy time of the year (one is taking exams or they are hanging over our heads).
At the very least, if one applies to one school early action or early decision, s/he should not wait until they receive that school’s response to begin filling out all the other applications waiting in the wings. I know that it is very tempting to wait, but after seeing what this has done to several of my friends, I highly recommend getting an early start.
Finally, I suggest that students don’t blow off their freshman year. If that happens, one will spend the next three years trying to bring up those grades.
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When I was a young, awkward adolescent, I considered myself to be a shy person, especially around boys. Because of this, my experiences at a coed middle school intimidated me somewhat. So, for the past five years, I have attended an all-girls school, which has helped me to become a stronger person. I have overcome my shyness and insecurities and developed much more confidence.
Ironically, I believe that my shyness, something that I consider a communication barrier, has ultimately led me to focus on a field for my life’s work: communications. Despite my aversion to it early on in life, I now love speaking to and interacting with people, be it as a friend, teacher, or public speaker. I now have a passion for stimulating conversation, and that enthusiasm manifests itself in three different and important aspects of my life outside of the classroom: peer support, volunteer work, and music.
Peer support is a high school-sponsored program through which juniors and seniors are selected to work with eighth graders who attend Sacred Heart. It involves an intensive three-day workshop where student leaders learn how to listen effectively to and become mentors for the younger students. I love this work. Once a week, I get to speak to these impressionable boys and girls about anything that I feel is important. I enjoy learning about their lives and their issues and exploring possible solutions to their problems. We study today’s society and its impact on them. I see much of my old self in these young people and that memory has helped me to help them become more confident about their everyday lives.
My volunteer work centers on teaching, through a program called Summerbridge. After school, I go to a nearby public school and tutor learning-disadvantaged preteens. Instead of dealing with the students’ personal issues, as I do in peer support, the Summerbridge focus is more on communication through education. By working with these younger students, I have come to understand the importance of helping them comprehend and apply what they learn in the classroom. Their motivation, given their circumstances, is remarkable. We discuss in detail what they are learning so that I can keep them interested and motivated. Summerbridge is another example of how communication issues are very important to me.
Not surprisingly, music has emerged as another, perhaps indirect, avenue for me to communicate with others. Singing allows me to convey my deep and personal emotions with others. When I sing, I am transported to another realm. The mundane everyday world around me disappears, and I am enveloped in my own, new space, especially when I am performing onstage. When I act, I am transformed, feeling the happiness, sadness, impishness, or even confusion that my character feels. My performance taps into that part of me where those qualities dwell, and I love sharing it with my audience. Music is a very special form of communication for me.
Perhaps the person I am today is a compensation for who I was years ago. That awkward twelve-year old, however, is no more. Now I want to show the world what I can do. Communication has become my passion. It will be my future.