This is the fifth post in a continuing series about a high school senior attemping to navigate through the college admissions process. She is Samantha Fogel, a student at The Derryfield School, a private college preparatory day school for grades six through twelve in Manchester, New Hampshire. Samantha and her college counselor, Brennan Barnard, are documenting her application process in a series of occasional posts that include the voices of her parents, teachers, friends and others. Her story may help debunk some myths surrounding selective college admission while providing a window into a time of transition for one young woman growing up in rural New Hampshire.

In the first post, which you can read the first post here, Samantha Fogel and Brennan Barnard wrote about the beginnings of the college search.  Fogel explained how starting the application process was like “being sent out to sea by myself with 20 different maps.” The second post, with thoughts from Barnard as well as her parents, Erin and Jeff Fogel, speaks to the issue of how to parent a child trying to finish high school while undergoing the anxiety-ridden college application process.  The third post looks at her unconventional search for colleges to visit to help decide where to apply.  The fourth piece explains how she decided which college to apply to through the early decision process. And this piece looks at the dreaded college essay.

From Brennan Barnard:

“College Essay.” Few other words have such combined power to stop even the most eloquent, fluid, articulate high school writer dead in her tracks. The charge: in 650 words or less demonstrate your ability to express yourself, while capturing your very essence, being sure to engage the weary eyed college admission officer who has not seen the light of day since early application deadlines in November. What is it that makes one senior stand out among all the high achieving class presidents with strong testing who were elected as captain of a sport and participated in multiple service projects with their church youth group? The essay, of course.

Many students can craft an insightful analytical paper or construct a meticulous lab report. Some students can even produce an entire 50,000-word novel during November’s National Novel Writing Month. Faced with the task of writing about themselves, however, many seniors just cannot put pen to paper. Often applicants overthink this assignment, trying to predict what they assume admission officers want to hear. Caught up in attempts to please, entertain and impress colleges, these students are unable to be authentic.

The next stumbling block comes when so many eyes have seen an applicant’s essay drafts and “offered” input, that it no longer becomes the candidate’s work. Parents, teachers, tutors, friends, neighbors, maybe even the postman, are asked to weigh in on the potential submission, and before long it is unrecognizable as the student’s own. The applicant’s unique voice is lost in the wordsmithing. What is left is a polished, phony essay, often foreign to the author herself.

Then there is the thesaurus, another crutch that can lead to an awkwardly worded essay that renders said aspirant as a profuse architect of salient, striking prose (I would like to credit Microsoft’s thesaurus for that sentence). The aim of the college essay is not to sound like a pompous lyricist who can wax poetic about abstract concepts. The purpose is to honestly and genuinely articulate that which makes one excited; the idea is to provide an accurate representation of one’s best writing ability while revealing curiosity and allowing the reader a window into the applicant’s world.

Please note that most college admission officers were not born yesterday. These professionals, who have read hundreds and thousands of college essays, can easily see through a submission that is the product of many hands. It is immediately evident when a parent or advisor has been too heavy handed in the editing process and the piece lacks a student’s voice. This is not to suggest that seniors should resist having someone proofread their work and weigh in on the appropriateness of the essay in form and content. In fact, it is those who know the author best who can candidly discern whether a personal essay is powerful as a snapshot of the individual.

Some final thoughts for college applicants about the essay:

• If you are not funny, this is not the time to attempt to develop this skill.

• Start early. Even if you work best under pressure, last minute efforts often miss  the mark.

• Don’t try to be so unique that you lose sight of the message you want to send.

• More is not always better. Remember, “brevity is the soul of wit.” (Shakespeare)   Follow directions. If the word limit is 500 words, 530 is not going to get you extra credit. Rather it will just irk the reader whose desk is already stacked high with  essays from those who adhered to the guidelines.

• Lastly, instead of fearing this assignment, take advantage of it as a means of self-reflection. Writing the college essay is a wonderful opportunity to articulate one’s  values and passions and learn something about one’s self in the process.

(Please note that this submission was written in under 650 words)

From Samantha Fogel:

I sat at my desk with a blank page open and a singular thought running through my mind: I have nothing to write about. As juniors, we had continuously been reminded of the significance of our college essays. This idea was terrifying and thrilling me at the same time, as I was saddled with my first truly important piece of writing. Yet, as I sat down to consider what I would share about my life to college admission offices, I came up short. A sinking feeling weighed in my stomach as I echoed the thought that had been vocalized numerous times by my peers. There’s nothing special about me, why would any college want to read about me? I had been warned of this phenomenon many times preceding the actual process of writing, but it was not until I was faced with the actual task that those words become a reality.

Mr. Barnard reminded me that a tale of heroic adventure was not necessary or expected, that it was easiest for past students to simply write about something ordinary about themselves. So, after many brainstorming sessions I came up with a topic that appealed to exactly that, my diet. Once I formulated my idea, I arrived at my second roadblock, actually writing the essay. Six hundred and fifty words had seemed incredibly simple at first glance, and luckily, length never proved to be an issue. However, what this essay lacked in length was made up in drafts. To craft a piece about which I truly felt proud, a teacher suggested that about ten drafts would be necessary. Give or take a version, this advice proved to be true. And so, brought to you by countless revisions, wonderful feedback, and record breaking levels of stress, here is the end product:

Attached to my side since the first time I opened it, my copy of the Dhammapada has evolved into a metaphorical appendage. Although its pages are now tattered and marked up to the point of illegibility, three words in it resonate with me just as strongly now as they did two years ago: do no harm. In my naive eagerness to embrace this Buddhist ideal, I made the quickest adjustment I could think of in order to live by this mantra. I became a vegetarian. I held on to a misguided assumption that this decision affected only me and would not impact my friends and family. Every time I turned away a plate of meat offered to me, I felt a sense of pride, celebrating another personal victory as I sat on a pedestal overlooking the barbarians who still dared to eat their slaughter. I thought I had discovered a tangible way to experience doing no harm, and idealistically imagined that my newfound vegetarianism would add only positive karma to the world without ever causing negative repercussions.
It was not until a year later that I realized how shallow my understanding was when I made the decision to travel to Spain. As I filled out the computerized survey that would place me with a host family, I was asked to list any dietary restrictions. Without hesitation, I responded that I didn’t eat meat. The first red flag -literally- appeared in the form of a small pop-up paragraph in fine print beneath my answer. The text warned that vegetarianism was a foreign concept to many in Spain, and previous vegetarian students had experienced tension with their host families. Ignoring the obvious reality of the warning, I idealistically clung to the belief that my “enlightened” stance would shield me from any negative reaction.
My first night in Spain served as a rude awakening when upon my arrival, one of the first questions my host mother asked was what she should cook for me. Without her understanding that vegetarianism was a moral practice and not some ephemeral fashion statement, I could not convey my decision as anything less than an inconvenience. For the first time, I saw how my one tangible method to live through my mantra could actually cause harm, and at that moment, a slow transformation began to take place in my appreciation of the moral importance of compromise. As we continued to discuss what I would eat and my consciousness of the inconvenience I was causing grew, I felt my mantra on the verge of crumbling.
Two weeks later, it fell entirely to pieces while at a picnic with my family. A friend of the family approached me, insisting that I try the ham he had brought. I attempted to explain at first why I didn’t want to, but the more I declined, the more he insisted, further offended each time. As the encounter grew increasingly tense, I realized how much of a cultural insult it was to refuse food in Spain. And then I understood. Causing harm cannot be compiled into a simple list with evil in one column and virtue in the other. Eating the ham, what seemed like the ultimate sin to me, appeared completely innocent to this man. In that moment, my cultural insult was far more harmful than consuming a minute portion of meat. Finally acquiescing, I accepted the ham, descending from the pedestal I had grown so accustomed to standing on.
It was not until I absorbed the lesson of compromise that I fully submersed myself into a deeper level of “do no harm” beyond the dynamics of simply being a vegetarian. Although far from achieving perfection in my practice, since my return from Spain, my consciousness of my actions has increased and I find myself learning to temper rather than force my views, coming that much closer to doing no harm.