I recently had the pleasure of talking to a group of high school students in a summer writing program about college application essays.
Instead of asking me to give a talk, the director of the program invited the students to ask me whatever was on their minds. We had a lively conversation, covered the most pressing issues around the Common App essay, the personal statement, and the supplements, and I was reminded of how many myths and mysteries there are for applicants every year. Here's a handful of their questions.
1. What essay topics will hurt my application?
The key to a terrific essay is finding a topic that makes you feel energized and ready to write - the one that feels natural, and will therefore make the essay fun to tackle, and something of a personal exploration. But if the topic you hit on is on this taboo list, well, time to do some more soul-searching and brainstorming. You've probably heard some of these prohibitions, but there may be a few here you haven't heard:
Avoid mentioning sex and drugs. (Oldest advice there is.)
Avoid writing about the books that every high school student has to read or probably has read, including Harry Potter in all his incarnations, Twilight, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Game of Thrones, or whatever new sensation has gripped the imagination of millions. It's not at all that colleges frown on these books or frown on your enthusiasm for them. Don't stop reading! It's that calling attention to these blockbuster books - or books on every high school syllabus - won't make your essay stand out. You're looking for material that's uniquely yours.
Skip speeches and academic papers. The essays are personal statements about what matters to you. If you're crazy about ancient history or mitochondria, it can be great to write about your enthusiasm for the topic and why it makes you feel like dancing - but that's quite different from a piece called "Babylonian Religious Artifacts" or "The First Amendment and the Origins of Democracy." Remember, make in personal.
Skip failure, if possible. Prompt Number Two asks students about a failure and what they have learned from it. While I think there is value in each of the Common App essay prompts, if a student has a strong record, ardent passions and an accomplishment or two, I steer them away from writing about failure. The idea of the essays is - in the words of song from the 1940s - to accentuate the positive.
The death of a grandparent. This seems like a heartless prohibition, so let me explain. The admissions folks sympathize with you and your loss. Quite often, a grandparent's death is a young person's first exposure to death. The problem with making it the subject of an essay is that it's too familiar and the emotions around it are predictable. Again, as with Harry Potter and Jay Gatsby, you're going in search of your uniqueness - your fingerprint - in your essay.
Avoid short. The Common App essay can be no longer than 650 words and no shorter than 250 words. The students I work with rarely, if ever, go under 600 words. When you really sit down and do this, 650 words isn't all that many, and most students bemoan the limitations. If your essay is 250 words, 300, or even 400, what message are sending along with those words? To me, the message is: I couldn't be bothered saying more. And the underlying message is: I do the minimum that's required. If that's you and you're comfortable projecting that information, that's your choice. But if you're going to submit 300 or 400 words, especially to highly selective colleges, it's important to understand how they might be received.
Avoid typos and sloppiness. If yoU cant fighr out whut I'm tryingh to sau, how do you thimk collehe admissionz ppl will?!
2. Had I heard about the girl who got into 5 Ivies writing about shopping at Costco?
Yes, I had heard about Brittany Stinson, but I explained to the group that although news headlines made it seem as though it was the essay that had done all the work, it wasn't. "This essay got a high-school senior into 5 Ivy League schools and Stanford," blared Business Insider.
Her essay may have stood out for its originality, but without her stellar high school record, it couldn't have gotten her through these ivy-covered doors. The essay was the icing on a very impressive cake - but the icing alone isn't enough to catapult you into highly selective schools. Grades and the rigor of your high school courses are among the primary criteria that colleges consider. Brittany graduated first in her class for four years, speaks Portuguese and Spanish, took eight Advanced Placement classes, was the vice president of the Science Honors Society and the president of her school's National Honors Society, and did research with a genetics professor.
3. Does the topic of the essay have to relate to what you plan to do in college?
A resounding No! Absolutely not! Think of your essay as an interview, when you've got a brief chance to make an impression on an admissions officer. Talk about a special moment or a special passion - something you can't do without - and why it matters so much to you. You're not auditioning for your major. In fact, in most colleges, you don't declare your major until the end of sophomore year.
4. How do I write about a deep feeling without sounding trite?
This is the challenge of writing for all of us, especially when exploring intense emotion.
I cried my eyes out. I was so upset, I couldn't see straight. It was the worst moment of my life. All of these statements do convey feeling - and serious distress. It's fine to have these clichés and easy responses in your first - and maybe second - draft, but be sure to show your essay to a teacher, counselor or family friend who has a way with words, to make sure someone takes a red pencil to them. Once others scribble "cliché" in the margin, you'll spot them more easily yourself.
What then? How to make your prose original? Read, read, read. I encourage students to develop a New Yorker habit - - and make sure to read a few articles in this first-rate magazine every week, and try some of the novels beyond those that are assigned in class.
Got a question I haven't answered? Please post below, and I'll try my best.
Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling novelist, editor, and journalist, and founder of the college counseling service, Don't Sweat the Essay.
Follow Elizabeth Benedict on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ElizBenedict
Share your story here for possible inclusion in Reader’s Digest »
Kagan McLeod for Reader's DigestA SOLDIER’S SUPRISE
by Gail Litrenti-Benedetto, Park Ridge, Illinois
It is spring of 1943 during World War II. Standing among hundreds of new soldiers at Camp Grant, in Illinois, my father, Sam, just 18 years old, waits as a truck slowly drives by. A full field pack is randomly tossed to each soldier. “How strange,” my father thinks, as he sees his last name, Litrenti, marked on each item in his pack. “How did they know it was me when they tossed the pack?” He was impressed! Beating all odds, my father was tossed a field pack from World War I—his own father’s.
by Dan Rolince, Golden, Colorado
On a cool night lit only by the orange glow of fire, we rushed to my grandfather’s home as his decades-old barn burned to the ground. The firemen let us stand nearby as they pumped water from the creek a quarter mile away. We watched the barn go up in flames, which stirred memories of jumping off foot-wide wooden beams into the hay below. The real sadness came as my elderly grandfather, who did not get out of bed, quietly asked if his cows were safe. He hadn’t had dairy cows in a dozen years.
A MOTHER’S WISDOM
by Lori Armstrong, Kelseyville, California
I have always worn my children’s birthstones around my neck. One morning, when I was late for work, my infant son Larry’s topaz birthstone fell from my gold chain. I frantically searched for it, whispering to myself, “I lost my Larry, but I will get him back.”
That day, Larry’s cardiologist called with test results from one of his first checkups. He would need emergency heart surgery. Happily, the operation was a success, and I whispered in Larry’s ear, “I thought I lost you, but I knew I’d get you back.”
Kagan McLeod for Reader's Digest
THE GOOD DOCTOR
by Danica Helfin, Tifton, Georgia
Toto was a white dog with a small red tongue, and his stuffing was red as well. When his seams began to come apart beneath his knitted collar, it looked to my six-year-old eyes as though he were bleeding. That night, my father left for his shift in the emergency room with Toto wrapped in a blanket. The next day, Dad showed me the X-rays and Polaroid photographs of the
surgery. Beneath the bandage on Toto’s neck was a clean row of stitches. I still have the injury report! I love you, Dad.
A SMALL FORTUNE
by Ron Fleming, Fort Drum, New York
While walking across an open, grassy field, I became excited as my hand swooped toward the ground like an eagle attacking its prey. I picked up half of a $5 bill. I continued to walk around looking for the other half but thought to myself it would be impossible to find it on such a windy day. As I lifted my head, I spotted the other half of the bill tangled in crabgrass. Somehow, finding two halves of a ripped $5 bill felt better than working for a twenty.
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by Suzanne Cifarelli, Albany, New York
Don’t let her sleep in your bed.” That’s what I heard over and over after my daughter was born.
So I didn’t, unless she was sick. Now my baby is almost six, and every night, after we read and sing songs and turn off the light, I lie down with her before she falls asleep. We whisper to each other, and I watch her eyelids start to flutter. I smell her hair and kiss her forehead. And I wish I had done this every night.
by Angela Bradley-Autrey, Deer Park, Washington
I was four, playing outside in the humid Kentucky air. I saw my grandfather’s truck and thought, Granddad shouldn’t have to drive such an ugly truck. Then I spied a gallon of paint. Idea! I got a brush and painted white polka dots all over the truck. I was on the roof finishing the job when he walked up, looking as if he were in a trance.
“Angela, that’s the prettiest truck I’ve ever seen!” Sometimes I think adults don’t stop to see things through a child’s eyes. He could have crushed me. Instead, he lifted my little soul.
THE LONG LIFE OF ROOM 1108
by Laurie Olson, Dayton, Nevada
A long flight of weathered steps led to a hollow wooden door with rusty numbers beckoning us into room 1108. Inside, we barely noticed the lumpy bed, faded wood paneling, and thin, tacky carpet.
We could see the seashore from our perch and easily wander down to feel the sand between our toes. We returned again and again until the burgeoning resort tore down our orange-shingled eyesore. Forty years later, my husband periodically sends me short e-mails that declare the time: 11:08. “I love you, too,” I write back.
A Date With Fate
by Emily Page Hatch, Wilmington, North Carolina
In a kitschy bar in Cambridge, he asked to sit at my table, though later he would insist that I made the first move. I was intrigued by his tattoos. He thought I went to Harvard. All we had in common was that we’d both almost stayed home. Friends had dragged us out on a frigid February evening. We still never agree on anything, except that it’s a darn good thing we sucked it up that snowy night. Our wild blue-eyed son always stops us in our tracks, reminding us that fate is just as fragile as our memory.
Kagan McLeod for Reader's DigestPERFECT DAY
by Marybob Straub, Smyrna, Georgia
We went looking for a wedding dress on Sunday. Laughing, we made for the door of a bridal shop. This would surely be the first of many stores before we found the perfect gown. Having witnessed other brides and their mothers, we vowed to be happy in these moments. Unexpectedly, my mind went back to the day we brought her home some 27 years ago. I said a silent thank-you to the young mother who, by letting her go, allowed her to be mine at this precious time. Two hours later, there she stood, in the dress of her dreams. My beautiful girl.
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by Pat Guthrie, Pulaski, Virginia
My elderly sister decided for the first time to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve in New York City to watch the ball drop. The next morning, she reported that she was disappointed. When I asked her why, she said that on the news the day before, the reporters had talked about the crystals inside the ball and what a piece would be worth if someone got ahold of one. But then the ball descended very slowly. She’d expected it to crash and that people would scramble for the pieces. She’d wanted to see that!
by Julie Liska, Seward, Nebraksa
Dad auctioned off his faithful red tractor, rented out the land, and retired from farming in 1982. He and Mom moved to town. But they reserved a small plot of land for a garden and returned each week of summer to tend it. Winter brought new challenges. Dad had his hips replaced, bypass and cataract surgeries, and a stroke. Yet each spring the garden was planted, watered, lovingly tended—the bounty shared with all. Now Dad is 93; his pale blue eyes dodge the sun as he gingerly plucks red tomatoes from the vine. “What will you remember about me?”
Kagan McLeod for Reader's DigestDARK WATERS
by Daryl Eigen, Portland, Oregon
Night wreck diving in Micronesia is scary. One hundred feet down, the water is the blackest. Two of us dived toward a sunken ship that soon loomed large in the dark water. We felt the ghosts of the Japanese sailors who had died with this WWII freighter. Swimming deeper into the ship’s bowels, my buddy suddenly hit a layer of reflective silt, blinding us. Together we groped through the ship, breaking through the uninterrupted, silent blackness of the sea. Watching our bubbles, we rose to the surface, where I ripped off my mask to breathe the tropical air.
Kelly Hennigan, Lacona, New York
A wee bit of a kitten, she meowed louder than a freight train from behind the shelter’s cage. “Can we get this one?” asked Katie, age seven. “I don’t know,” I said. “A black cat may not be good luck.” To her, I was the young live‑in girlfriend and sometimes the one claiming her dad’s attention. A week later, we picked up our loud but little black kitten and named her Jasmine. Twenty years later, Jasmine’s old and loved, and when Katie comes home to visit, she greets me with a hug. We both agree: Black cats aren’t bad luck!
Aaron Hampton, Seattle, Washington
As a child, I had awful night terrors—at one point, I stopped sleeping. Then my dad’s younger brother lost his job and had to move in with us. Uncle Dave slept in the room next to mine. From then on, he was there to comfort me, sometimes even sleeping on the floor beside my bed “to keep the monsters away.” After he landed a job, he could have moved into a nice apartment, but I begged him not to go. When my parents asked why he was staying, he smiled and replied, “Monsters.”
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by Eileen Dougharty, Chicago, Illinois
“Ticket is $287. But all of that is a problem.” She’s referring to my luggage cart, stacked with suitcases, boxes, and a bag full of shoes. “One bag is free. Everything else is $100 each.” I tell her I packed my Volkswagen after discovering my boyfriend was cheating. Fried the engine. Hitchhiked to the airport in flip‑flops. She left her cheating husband recently, hardest decision she ever made. She checks it all, charges me nothing. As I leave, I don’t feel the crush of having no plan, only the weightlessness of being free.
Jennifer Thornburg, San Tan Valley, Arizona
I started quilting so I could spend time with my aunt. I didn’t accomplish much until my little sister was put into the hospital. She lived 13 hours away, which meant I couldn’t be at her side, but I could pray, and I could make her a blanket. Every stitch was sewn with prayer and tears, memories woven in between layers of cotton and polyester. Doctors said she was going to die at least three times. I sewed faster. By God’s good grace, I delivered that blanket two years ago, and my sister still sleeps under it today.
Babette Lazarus, New York, New York
I was riding the subway and happened to be seated between two young guys. The one on the right eyed the slightly grungy Band‑Aid on my thumb and said, “You should really change that, you know. You have to keep it clean.” Then the one on my left said, “Here, I have one,” and pulled a fresh Band‑Aid out of his knapsack. “I keep them on me because I’m always hurting myself.” Incredulous, I thanked him, changed my bandage, and got off at my stop feeling pretty good about people, life, and New York City.
Kagan McLeod for Reader's DIgestLOVE, EDITED
by Mahjabeen Daya, Brampton, Ontario
When I was raising my 14-year-old son as a single mother in Toronto, he helped me publish a magazine. One day, an incredibly handsome, soft-spoken, well-mannered visitor from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, visited my office. We shared our experiences as volunteer editors. When he left, my son whispered, “Mom! Now, that’s the kind of man you should marry!” I blushed and laughed it off and didn’t think about it again. Eight years later, I met the same man again. He was now a widower. We married and are still together nine years later, coediting an international magazine.
THE YELLOW HOUSE
by Rose McMills, Woodridge, Illinois
I’ve lived in my condo 15 years now—long enough that I don’t even see it anymore. I started dreaming about moving into a house, where I was bound to be happier. I fixated on little yellow houses somewhere in the suburbs of Chicago and watched for them from the train on my commute. “Oh, look—there’s one!” I’d say as it slid by. Then one day, sitting in the sun on my patio, I looked up and realized the outside of my condo was done in yellow siding. I already had a yellow house. And I was home!
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by James Gates, Watertown, South Dakota
We’d divorced three years earlier and hadn’t seen each other since, but for whatever reason, I never took her off my emergency contact list at the nearest hospital. After my accident, I was put in a medically induced coma, and when I woke, she was the only person in the room. She sat in a hospital recliner, watching The View, looking unshowered. She turned her head casually as I slowly came to. “It’s just like you to have something like this happen,” she said. “I’m here, so I figure I’ll get us something to eat. What do you want?”
Kagan McLeod for Reader's DigestSS SERENDIPITY
by Vernon Magnesen, Elmhurst, Illinois
In July 1915, Henry and his eight-year-old daughter, Pearl, were excited for the company outing the next day. That evening, Henry had a violent argument with his landlord, ending with the landlord spitting on a painting of the Virgin Mary. Henry was so upset, he fell ill and canceled their trip. He and Pearl missed the cruise on the SS Eastland, which sank with over 800 people on board—but not my future grandfather and mother. Thanks to that miracle argument 100 years ago, 22 descendants are alive today.
CLEAR EYES, FULL HEARTS
by Stephanie Adair, Metairie, Louisiana
Every day, upon picking up my 11-year-old son from school, I would ask, “How was your day?” For years, I got the same response—“Fine, fine”—with no eye contact. His autism, it seemed, was going to deprive me of the normal chitchat parents unconsciously relish. One early spring afternoon, I asked the question, expecting the same answer. “How was your day?” My son replied, “Good, good.” Then he looked at me and said, “How was your day, Mom?” With tears streaming down my face, I said, “It’s really good—the best day ever.”
Monte Unger, Colorado Springs, Colorado
A neighborhood kid with branches and leaves sticking out of his pockets and a headband came into our front yard. He looked like a little soldier in camouflage. “I’m acting like a tree so butterflies will come,” he said. As he waited on the grass, I brought out a huge blue preserved butterfly I’d purchased in Malaysia and hid it behind my back. I walked over, kneeled, pulled out the butterfly, and said, “A butterfly has come to see you.” He gasped, and his eyes widened. His wishes won’t always come true, but one did that day.
Kagan McLeod for Reader's DigestWHO GOES THERE?
by Nettie Gornick, Butler, Pennsylvania
In 1943, I was 19 years old and worked at a barbecue located about a mile from my home. It was a beautiful, warm June night, so I decided to walk home from work rather than take a bus. As I walked up the back porch steps, I heard a male voice: “Kiss me, or I’ll scream.” After my initial shock, I turned around to see a young soldier in an Army uniform. I kissed him softly on the cheek. He smiled. “Thank you,” he said, and walked off into the night.
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BIG SHOES TO FILL
by Theresa Arnold, Tioga, Texas
I cleaned out Dad’s closet yesterday. There were two things I couldn’t box up: his work shirts and his two pairs of Red Wing boots. He couldn’t remember birthdays or anniversaries, but he remembered the date on which he’d bought his first pair. I
remember it too—April 16, the day after Tax Day. What does a child do with her dad’s favorite boots? I think I will make a planter out of them or use them to store something valuable. You can’t throw away a man’s favorite boots. You’ve got to keep them and pass them down.
A GUIDING HAND
by Grace Napier, Greeley, Colorado
En route to work, I turned right to leave my yard when a firm hand restrained my right shoulder, shoving me left. No one else was present. I followed a longer route to a traffic light intersection on Lincoln Highway, where traffic was not moving, and headed for my work site. At the end of the workday, I returned home and learned of the accident that morning only minutes after 8:00, when two vehicles crashed, pinning the crossing guard between them and killing him. I would have been in that accident. My guardian angel had preserved my life!
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