Carol Barash even talks like she’s writing a college application essay: The day before her father died, she said, he told her that education was changing: No longer were there few collegiate options for women, for Jewish people, for poor families. “You could go anywhere,” he told her.
She was 15 years old, and she had no idea it would be the last conversation they would ever have. But she applied to Yale, even though her counselor told her she couldn’t possibly be admitted.
And she got in. “It felt quite miraculous,” she said. And it was the point when her life pivoted — from a girl growing up in a small house in Pennsylvania with the family business in the basement, to someone who could go anywhere, do anything.
Once there, she sat in the stacks of the library, reading George Orwell, Virginia Woolf and Adrienne Rich, copying lines in her journal and trying to capture the rhythm, word by word, then sentence by sentence, learning to be a better writer.
Once someone can write, she said, “it’s like having the keys to the castle.”
Now she’s teaching teenagers how to write their own stories, in the high-stakes, high-pressure arena of college admissions. And while some might find her approach too formulaic, or too intrusive in a process meant to gauge students’ writing abilities, she’s an ardent proponent of the importance of storytelling. The company she founded, Story2, has been promoted on social media this week by first lady Michelle Obama’s “Better Make Room” initiative encouraging students to apply to college. It is giving away 10,000 “toolkits” that guide students through essay-writing by starting with a conversation and 50 school-wide programs for schools with large proportions of students living in poverty.
“If we want to change the game on college access,” Don Yu, Director of Better Make Room, said in a written statement, “we need to connect with individual students as well as with their public schools. Story2 and Better Make Room are working on both fronts to share real students’ stories and to expand educational equity.”
Most application essays aren’t memorable, admissions experts say. A few are so awful they stand out. And some are so powerful that they change a student’s chance of acceptance, or help win scholarships. (Some successful essays are printed below, as inspiration.)
Admissions officers reading these essays are trying to get a sense of who the student is, so they’re looking for something quite personal, in the student’s own voice, said Grace Cheng, director of admission at Wellesley College. They’re not looking for graduate-thesis prose, or what someone’s mom told her to write.
“Sometimes essays are so overly polished that we actually lose sight of who the real teenage voice is behind the application,” she said, “and we start to question, ‘Who is the person who is going to show up on move-in day?’
“We’re looking for real, thoughtful, genuine, teenager reflection…. Show us your personality, tell us who you are. … Treat it like a conversation.”
Ellen Kim, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in an email, “We absolutely get a sense of applicants’ personalities from their essays. The essay is just one part of the application but the most effective ones pull the whole application together. That’s why it’s so important for the essay to be the student’s own work—their ideas, opinions, and experiences. The authenticity of the writing is what makes it effective.”
They understand it’s stressful, Cheng said, to write about something as fundamental as identity and what gives life meaning, or to find a moment or topic that encapsulates that. And unfortunately kids today are so busy all the time, she said, that they don’t have much time or opportunity to just pause and reflect.
Time for self-reflection is one of the most commonly overlooked parts of the application, Kim noted.
But the reassuring thing is that, done right, it should be a more natural form of expression than academic writing. Jeannine Lalonde, associate dean of admission at the University of Virginia, wrote in an email that she tells applicants, “Don’t feel confined to the formulaic structure that you use for academic essays. While technically correct, this style of essay is better used for a class assignment or the essays students have to write for the standardized tests. The result is often an essay that reads like a report that isn’t revealing much about the applicant. Lead the reader to understand you better through a story that uniquely yours.”
She offered advice about advice: It’s good to get guidance on something so important, she said — and students can sometimes get so worried about their essays that they try to write in unnatural ways, which a teacher could point out — “but I fear that some students throw every suggestion and edit into their essay and then it reads like it was written by a committee.”
When students send the final essay, she said, it should be broadcasting their voice.
That’s why Barash has students literally tell their story out loud. The recording of that conversation, in the student’s own unique voice, forms a template for the essay. People love stories, she said, and naturally know how to tell them. It’s the writing that’s a challenge.
“Most people are moved by other peoples’ real experiences; that’s how we connect.”
So she offers her own approach to a task many people dread. She suggests students make a long list: If his life were a movie, what were 10 turning points? And for each of those 10 changes, what were 10 really specific moments that made up the change? She’s looking for vivid, specific details — how the incense smelled in the church that day, how the tree splintered when the snowboard smashed into it — not detached analysis.
Once students choose the turning point they want to focus on — the one that tells most about them — she asks them to write it like a tweet, in 140 characters, to crystallize the idea.
Then they tell the story aloud. And then they work on the writing. She advises starting with a “magnet” to pull the reader in, a pivot when something changes, and ending with a “glow” that leaves readers wanting to know more. Often people write a lame explanatory line at the end of an essay rather than letting the story end naturally, she said; done right, the point should already be clear.
Writing that well doesn’t happen quickly. Ellen Kim advised, “It takes a lot of self-reflection to think about how you want to represent yourself in an essay. And that takes time. Students don’t need to write the perfect essay in one draft.” They should allow lots of time, read it to people who know them well, and rework it a few times — until it really tells their story, in their own voice.
Here are some essays that Barash shared:
“Stay away from the windows!” my first-grade teacher shouted as the school quivered from the first explosion. Darkness engulfed the sky. Moments later, the windows shattered into a million crystal-like shards. I was the target.
The life of an Iraqi refugee family is hard, but the grueling challenges I faced have been my teachers. I have learned to make friends quickly and to find opportunities to grow. I had two options: to interrogate the universe about why I was put in such situations, or adjust accordingly and aspire to greatness.
After the school bombing, my father received a death threat. “Iraq is not safe anymore,” he asserted. My family decided to start a new life in Jordan. My challenge was to adapt because of the different dialects and curriculum. “He speaks funny,” said the teachers and students.
I saw kids living in secure homes with extended families… something I had once known. But solace arrived in something untouchable and ethereal: Music. It enraptured me and gave me a real refuge from the troubles of the world. My confidence grew as I played guitar every day until my hands went numb. Fingertip callouses sheltered me from the pain of the steel strings and made me calloused to the pain of the real world.
My confidence grew stronger. I have reached the point where my hands have gently flirted with my weeping guitar at two of the most renowned hotels in Jordan: Hyatt Amman and The Royal. I have shared my music on the national radio. Through music I could concentrate, explore my emotional self, and connect with my soul. Life is precious and trauma is curable.
But as soon as I began to see my future ahead of me, our U.N. file got accepted. My mother told me we would be migrating to the States in a week. “But mum, people started to like me!”
I felt robbed of my future once again. I reflected on my life during the grueling eighteen hour flight. My endeavors in Jordan became mere memories. My name was shackled with “refugee.” I was a “nobody” once again. No! I will stop history from repeating itself. This time, I was more equipped for my future than ever. Déjà vu is in my favor. My confidence grew more.
Because we left before the school year ended in Jordan, I needed enough credits to proceed in high school. But the board of education told me that it was “impossible” for me to pass my freshman End of Course tests given the new environment, syllabus, and even language. The board had no idea how far I was willing to go to not lose an entire year of my life. I passed them all. Six hours a day for two days before each test were enough for me to learn an entire course load. I proved my point: I can succeed in education in a language foreign to my own. Adversity morphed into destiny. America became my land of opportunity.
I now hold myself to the same standards as my peers. I have proven my worth and ability and I intend for people to recognize them. I demand the world of myself even if the world demands nothing of me. Two years in, and I have made a name for myself. I am someone.
I was once a child whose innocence fled with a school bombing, a toddler who hid under the stairs as he heard the air raid sirens, a baby who cried himself to sleep from fear in a third world country. A window shattered into a million shards: on some was written death, and on others life. I refuse to be a mere statistic. Regardless of the challenges and false leads, I believe life must always be grasped and that sheer hard-work and determination will prevail.
My life score reads, “Celere, con brio.” Celebrate, with vigor.
– Abdullah Al-Obaidi
New York City, 9 p.m. Friends are laughing in the next room squeezed around the dinner table, as I try to whip something up. I put the water to boil, adding salt. As I wait, the steam begins to twist, to twirl, filling up the kitchen. I pause to wipe the sweat from my brow.
At eight o’clock in the morning my shirt is already moist. Sweat rolls down my face, every inch of my body. A typical morning in Perugia.
Sauté the garlic in olive oil on medium heat.
The gravel in the driveway crunches and crackles, “E’ arrivato zio Mario!”
I run barefoot, almost tripping down the stairs, all the way to his car, arms outstretched. His hair, grayer this year, falls over his tanned face. His hands rest on his belt, one finger cut off above the joint. I pull on my boots and he climbs onto the tractor. He hauls me onto his lap holding me tightly.
The tractor roars, an olive branch lightly grazes my face, the grasshoppers go silent. At the back of the field, Mario climbs up a ladder and starts trimming the tips of the branches, the polloni. I take them and pile them in heaps. The trees are brimming with olives this year.
Chop the tomatoes, put them to simmer with the garlic, add salt and pepper.
At noon, I walk back towards the house to find my Nonna in the garden, wearing a flowered apron.
She tells me puoi portarmi il cestino un po’ più vicino? “bring that bucket a little closer, would you?”
She fills it up with plump, juicy, purplish-red tomatoes, a meal in themselves.
Pour in the linguini, stir fresh basil into the tomatoes.
We break off stems of basil. Nonna says, vedi si devono prendere quelli pieni di fiori, così la pianta può crescere. “See we have to take the ones with the most flowers on them, so the plant grows.” We climb the small hill with a full bucket of pomodori. It’s hot.
Dice the mozzarella, strain the linguini, pour the sauce over them, and add the mozzarella.
I follow Nonna into the kitchen trying to avoid the gang of mothers, uncles and aunts. I reach for the mozzarella and it melts in my mouth; creamy, smooth, dripping, flavor that overloads my senses.
I thought I was so clever, but as I turn around “Sarah can you set the table? And stop eating all the mozzarella!” They caught me.
I take the tablemats and retreat to the step outside. The neighbor’s cat rubs against my legs. I tear off a small piece of cheese and feed it to her.
Serve right out of the pot. “Hey guys,” I call over their laughter, “help me set the table, dinner is ready!”
– Sarah Sutto-Plunz
In the maze-like middle school, my shadow was my only companion.
My heart raced one hundred times a second whenever my English teacher turned her head around to call on students. Once, my luck vaporized and my teacher picked me. My face metamorphosed into a ripe tomato. I cleared my throat, attempting to compose my words. I started to speak but invisible walls made me stutter over and over. For many days, my classmates snickered as they walked past me.
One day, I found a 2-dimension online role-playing game named QQ Three Kingdoms. While listening to the classical Chinese music in the game, I chatted with other players about my solitude and failure in America. With their assistance, I soon reached a high level in the game.
Because my mom prohibited me from playing the game late at night, once I came up with a strategy to play at night. First, I set the clock at two A.M. and slept at ten as I was told. When the ringing of the clock struck two, I bounced off my bed in a second. To be safe from my mom’s vigilance, I bent my knees and tiptoed across my room to close the door.
When I played, I typed cautiously as if there were bombs under each key. I endured the tightness of the muscles around my shoulders and successively played until four A.M..Whenever I thought about my character’s gradual upgrade and my increasing companions in the game, a grin would automatically form on my fatigued face.
Three years passed by quickly, and it was the beginning of junior year. One day, on the way home after a Cross Country practice, my teammate told me about how he was addicted to another online-game named Maple Story but recently quit.
“Why did you quit?” I asked anxiously.
He replied: “Why not? There is nothing to gain at the end. Besides, everything in the game is fictitious.”
That night, I rolled and rolled in bed, yet could not fall asleep. I was musing my teammate’s words. He seemed right. But how can I quit? I have been playing for years. It is not easy to get to such a high level I have achieved. But, wait . . .. What have I gained in these years? Indeed . . . nothing!
Within two weeks, I sold all the items in the game and said good bye to my friends. Yet, I did not delete my accounts because I wanted to be reminded in the future of my deluded passion.
It was a summer day and I was a rising senior. Despite the whipping wind driven by the A Train, the burning atmosphere still rendered me breathless in the underground train platform. I quickly stepped into the train and dropped down in a seat. I closed my eyes and rested my head on the board. Then, I immersed into inevitable sleepiness. But suddenly, my ambition to score a higher score on the SAT flickered in my mind. I rubbed the tightness on my temples and I reluctantly took out a SAT vocabulary cartoon from my school bag. Meanwhile, a group of friends who also had summer school at City College saw me and walked toward me.
One of them said: “Hey Yingbin, we were waiting for you outside the college but here you are!”
“Sorry about that. I have to leave early because I now have to go to the Let’s Get Ready program.”
“Another program? It is summer, don’t kill yourself!” One of my friends blurted out.
I grinned and said: “Thank You. But, since I have dawdled in the past, I must spend every second meaningfully.”
– Yingbin Mei
“Vote Paul Lee for District Leader!” My face brightened as morning commuters passed by and took flyers from my hand.
As they turned the corner, they carelessly tossed the flyers away. My brows furrowed. Is this what I woke up at seven in the morning for? To hand out flyers to indifferent strangers who won’t give the time of day, nevertheless a second glance? I was just a background character, a boy handing out flyers in the scene of a lively street. I was a mannequin, easily passed by unnoticed.
After my flyer shift had ended, my boss took me out to lunch at a diner. My eyes were darting back and forth, unsure of the situation. My boss slouched casually in his seat across from me. I had only met him twice before and instinctively, I began surreptitiously examining him. I slyly lowered my menu and peered over the “wall.”
He wore a simple white polo shirt and his greying hair was brushed back in an old 60s hairstyle. He seemed like just an average Chinese man. The waiter came and pulled me out of my idle thoughts. As we made our orders, he put down his menu, and said, “how about a story?”
He opened with a story about his stint with the army, when he brashly enlisted at the Chinatown recruitment center. Next was a lighthearted tale of his moment of “stardom” when he debuted on the silver screen in Hollywood. Finally, the curtains closed with a story of an “extreme makeover” of his parents’ antique store to a game shop.
I vicariously experienced the vivid fragments of his past through his stories. I felt the hope and energy of a young man slightly short in stature, but big in heart, enlisting in the army, the excitement of a risk taker trying to make it big in Hollywood, and the freedom of a high spirited man who followed his hobby and turned his parents’ antique store to a game shop.
In my mind Paul Lee had transcended the typical mannequin of an average Chinese man. I had inadvertently made the same oversight as the people that passed me on the street. I fit him into a general mold without trying to see him as an individual, just as they did to me. Looking around me, I had been blind. Every person in the room had their own unique story and character just like Paul had his, and I had mine.
Upon my realization, I found the courage to convey my own unique character to Paul through my ideas. There is a balance between practicality, creativity, and fun that I have come to hold at the highest value in my life. I proposed to Paul an idea that was the embodiment of all three: to host carnival games at the Pavilion with a voter registration stand on the side.
Instead of discarding my idea as I had expected, Paul encouraged it. Throughout the next week, the volunteers worked to create flyers, brainstorm ideas for games, and gather prizes.
However, on the day it all came together, it rained. Discouraged, I looked to Paul only to see that he was still in high spirits. In that moment I knew I couldn’t be the same defeated, overlooked mannequin handing out flyers in the street. Optimism and vitality surged through the mannequin within me. I wiped the scowl from my face and proudly presented to him the six registration forms we received that day with a smile.
The mannequin had come to life; I was no longer a background character but the center of the scene.
– Kenny Lee
Joel Burt-Miller’s Story
I want to be a light in the darkness; someone who stands out against the “norm”. I want to be the difference maker, who stands up for change. I understand that change takes one step at a time, but it’s up to everyone to make a first step of his own.
My older brother, Shane did, which showed me that I could too.
I remember on one dark winter day, Shane had been attacked by a rival gang. A few weeks later, we went on a retreat with our church. While on this retreat, we visited the beach and started a bright campfire. As we gazed upon the fire all we heard was our youth pastor’s voice saying, “Tonight’s the night of change, tonight’s the night to let burdens go.” He told us to write our struggles down on a piece of paper, and when we felt ready we were to throw it into the fire.
As tears rolled down Shane’s face, he got up and threw his paper in the fire.
I watched as the flames devoured his pledge to the gang, and that night Shane committed himself to living a new life.
That night I changed too.
I realized that I could impact others. Each week after school, I volunteer at a local after-school program, where I help students with their homework. After they finish, I set up laptop computers and run my version of a “Computer 101” class. During this time, I have the opportunity to interact with the students, as well as a chance to learn from them.
Malik, a twelve year old student in the after-school program, once said to me, “the world just needs to be a better place Mr. Jay.” As I agreed, I replied, “the world does need to be a better place, and it’s up to us to change it.”
My brother, Shane, didn’t have a positive role-model before joining a gang. As “Mr. Jay,” I have the chance to be this role-model for students like Malik, who may have never had a positive role-model before.
Being an agent of change in my community isn’t just a cliché for me, it’s a necessary commitment.
Right now, I live in a community where crime rates are consistently high, where graduation rates are decreasing while incarceration rates are increasing. I live in a community where everyone settles with just the bare minimum.
In my vision of the future, I see a community where service and involvement are a regular part of everyone’s schedule, and not just a pop in activity around the holidays.
I see a community where education and graduation are priorities instead of a privilege.
I see a community where the bare minimum isn’t the standard, but everyone goes far beyond it.
All of this started with Shane changing his direction around a campfire, which helped me to see a world of possibilities. Now I am stepping out in faith in order to help others to see my vision with me.
– Joel Burt-Miller