In my humble opinion, the single biggest reason quality applicants get rejected from elite colleges is their inability to understand and execute essays. When people ask me, “Dave, wha’s the biggest problem you see among today’s high school students?” I don’t have to think twice: It’s their inability to formulate and articulate a convincing written argument.
Compounding this problem is the unique challenge of the elite college application. Admission committees at these top schools aren’t looking to hear about your summer vacation to Europe or your plan to end world hunger. In fact, they are much more interested in hearing your observations about the frequency of cars running yellow lights at the intersection near your home or how many years it has taken for that oak sapling outside your front window to push up the sidewalk slabs next to it.
You’re probably asking yourself why on earth anyone could be more interested in your intersection or oak tree than your great trip or humanitarian ideals. The answer is simple: Because the intersection and that oak tree can tell more about who you are and how you think. As you read a few samples of real-life college essays, notice how the writers reveal themselves, their attitudes, preferences, strengths, and even weaknesses, in a series of everyday situations. Their lives are no more exciting or glamorous than yours is. The difference between your writing style and theirs, though, may be due to your lack of understanding of how to speak through your writing in your own unique “voice.”
Voice is that elusive quality that allows your reader to hear you talking without the aid of your spoken words. Tha’s what makes the great novelists so great. Think about Steven King and D.H. Lawrence, or essayists like Andy Rooney, and even humorists like Dave Barry (no, not me; I’m Dave Berry). Once you’ve read these people’s writing, you feel as though you’ve seen the world through their eyes and, if you had the chance to meet them, they would probably talk just like they write. If you don’t believe me, just watch Andy Rooney’s spot at the end of 60 minutes some Sunday evening, then read one or two of his columns in the newspaper or one of his excellent essay collections. He sounds just like he reads. He reveals himself through his writing. Therein lies your essay challenge.
Here’s another one of Dan’s essays. As I got to know Dan better from our almost daily e-mail exchanges, I soon discovered that he had a very sharp sense of humor, in addition to great sensitivity. I encouraged him to take a seemingly mundane event from his life and expose it to his analytical humor. As you’ll see here, he followed my suggestion magnificently:
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Haircuts and Other Aviation Disasters
I felt the wheels of a cold 747 touch down on my head. I jumped and ran frantically to the bathroom. As I saw the familiar face peering back at me, I felt my stomach sink. There, peering from behind the mirror was Dan, with a brand-new airplane landing strip right down the middle of his head. Another crash landing.
The thing I dislike most in the world is long hair. I don’t mean I dislike the style of long hair or people with long hair. I just dislike long hair on myself. I have very thick, curly hair that lends itself to certain discomforts. Sleeping causes my hair to lodge between the pillow and my skull, which incessantly tugs on my scalp all night long, leaving me with a sore head the next day. Combing proves futile since the comb hooks onto my curls like Velcro and the force required to break through the snarled mass is beyond my pain threshold. Styling products give me headaches. So, I prefer just to crop it all off, as if I’m in Navy boot camp.
This manner of hairstyle seems like a pretty good solution to end all my troubles, doesn’t it? Nope, it’s just a tradeoff. The shorter my hair is, the faster it grows. My hair grows so fast that every two weeks I need another trim just to maintain a bearable length. All I need is someone willing to take five minutes to turn on the clippers and do a few passes over my head. Solution: I let my mom cut my hair.
Having my mom cut my hair is like flying on an airplane. Sure, it’s risky with potential deadly results, but it gets me where I want to go in a short time. But as my mom and the airline industry have proven, out of the many flights from Chicago to New York, there always are a few memorable crashes.
One Sunday morning four years ago, I sat on the barber-chair bucket in the garage for my usual biweekly buzz. The clippers humming above my head sounded like a benign turboprop cruising at 30,000 feet. The gentle buzzing assured me that I wouldn’t have to endure long hair any longer. Everything seemed routine until I felt the sting of what felt like a whirling propeller. My hand instinctively reached toward the trauma site and found a small bare spot. I sprinted to the bathroom mirror and took a small hand mirror from the drawer, angling it so I could see the back of my head.
“And I have school tomorrow!” I shrieked. My mind raced, searching for some covert plan to feign my own death or hitchhike to Canada. After my fanciful plans died in committee, I sequenced some objective logic: “How can I repair this? My hair is black. A ballpoint pen would take off more skin than it would blacken. I need something like . . . a felt marker!” Thus, I proceeded to apply several artful layers of permanent magic marker to my bare spot, and-voila-no more annoying spot.
No one noticed the canyon on the side of my head during the two weeks that it took my hair to grow back. Somehow, I imagined that this experience would serve as an experiential warning and avert future haircut disasters. I was wrong.
This past winter, I once again stood in front of that mirror gazing at yet another calamity. This clear-cut strip would have pleased even the most maniacal lumberjack. It was way too large to repair with markers. So, to compensate, I was forced to shave the rest of my head, since I didn’t really care for the inverted-Mohawk look. Besides that, the Sahara was too far for my coin jar to take me.
That winter I walked around in my big, warm wool sweater complemented by my glistening shaved head. This time, though, EVERYONE noticed. Such is life at Dan’s Barber Shop Airlines.
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Tip: Titles can lend heft to an essay if they are carefully thought out. After you have finished your final revision and you’re satisfied that your essay can’t get much better, reread it one more time. Look for one or two key aspects that you may be able to work into a title. You can see the results of my title prompting in some of the samples included here.
By the way, Dan was admitted to Yale in April. Bulldogs!