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    The Essay from the Black Lagoon

    Don't let those college applications scare you! These tips will get you through.

    by Josh Johnson

    Now I'm no scientist, but it seems clear to me that eight out of nine college application designers were formerly employed as zoologists who studied amphibians. Perhaps I should explain my findings.

    writing tips to help you pass through difficult college essaysIt was 1996. I was concerned that if I didn't go to college, my parents would make me clean my room. The only thing that stood in the way was the college application. So I sat down with my lucky black pen, put my penmanship cap on, and dug in.

    As I began the application, I was faced with such daunting questions as Name and Marital Status. College, I thought, was merely a Telephone Number and Zip Code away.

    I was wrong. In reality, I was like the naive frog placed in a pot of lukewarm water by malicious zoologists. Of course, we all know how this story ends. The heat gets turned up slowly until the water boils, and the frog doesn't notice until it's too late. In the same way, college applications are designed to begin simply and end … with an ESSAY.

    For those who already suffer from nightmares about endangered amphibians, this story may be frightening. But let me assure you that I made it out alive and am now attending--and loving--an essay-requiring college. With this in mind, I would like to share some helpful observations that could transform your essay-writing experience from boiled frog to Prince Charming.

    History of the essay

    I wish I had a corn dog for every time I've heard someone say, "If I could just get my hands on the guy who invented the essay, I'd. ..." This anger is entirely misplaced.

    In reality, the French writer who invented the essay in the late 16th century, Michel de Montaigne, has often been misunderstood. Many people think he was a member of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But far from being a "hero in a half shell," Montaigne was a writer and thinker who invented the essay primarily to express himself. He said many things in his life (real quote: "What do I know?"), but he never once said that his invention should be used for college applications. Therefore, he is not to blame for your college-application angst. (As we have already discovered, you can blame the zoologists for that.)

    Application essay-writers do have something in common with Montaigne, however. The French man named his invention essai, which is French for "I forgot to use my spellchecker." Actually, essai is a French word (Old French spelling) meaning "trial" or "attempt." So while he's separated from today's American college applicants by 400 years and the Atlantic Ocean, Montaigne understood exactly what application essays are: a trial for writers.

    Ready... set...

    Three years ago, when I first sat down to write my application essay, one thought filled my mind: I wonder if Fruit of the Loom really makes quality underwear, or if their main product is oversized produce costumes. If your mind wanders this badly, it might be wise to consider relaxing in front of SportsCenter for an hour and "clearing the cobwebs" before beginning to write.

    When you are ready to focus, find a place where you won't be distracted and relax. Environment is critical.

    Ready … set … don't start writing. First, you should brainstorm. This is an important step that keeps your essay from following the same organizational structure as your school locker. Then wrangle those random thoughts into a concise outline. An outline is an effective tool to ensure that your sentences flow like the Mississippi River rather than spout aimlessly like Old Faithful.

    It is during the brainstorming process that an important tip applies: Be honest. The temptation in writing an application essay is to impress the admissions counselor who reads it, but this shouldn't be done at the expense of the truth.

    I remember the essay I wrote when I applied to the school I now attend. The question asked something about my relationship with God. I recall wanting to begin: "As a 4-year-old, I held crusades at my preschool and started the national organization, Toddlers Observing The Sacraments (TOTS). I passed legislation to have our snacks renamed Billy Graham Crackers. ..."

    Unfortunately, the reality is that I spent most of my fourth year blowing saliva bubbles, and my favorite snacks at preschool were quesadillas (quick: think of an evangelist whose name sounds like quesadilla). So, instead of drafting an impressive falsehood, I was honest about my faith. I talked about where my heart was, what I struggled with, and where I desired to be. And that's just what the admissions counselors were looking for.

    Sample questions

    One nice thing about application essay questions is that many sound the same from school to school. Here are two sample questions you may run across and some thoughts to consider when answering them.

    1. If you could meet anyone from history, who would you choose and why?

    The important part of this question, of course, is explaining why you chose who you did. For example, selecting a figure such as Nietzsche is generally not encouraged, unless you are planning to witness to him.

    This is also one of those questions where it is valuable to know who the person was and what he or she stood for. Picking Plato because he was a smart cookie is like picking a favorite football team because you like their helmets. Don't try to impress anyone with your pick. Find someone with whom you feel a personal connection.

    2. Of the books you've read in the last two years, which one left the greatest impression on you and why?

    This is an especially tough question for those who have not read a book since Go Dog Go! It's also difficult if you tend to gravitate toward a popular series of yellow books written by some guy named Cliff.

    Assuming you have read something since 1997, try to find a book you legitimately like--not a book meant to impress. For instance, it's best not to choose a book written entirely in Mandarin Chinese, unless you happen to know the language or were instructed to select the book by a fortune cookie.

    Fear not

    Montaigne said, "He who fears he will suffer already suffers from his fear." In other words, don't let the essay haunt your every waking thought, or you may end up trying to write something too deep and profound. On the other hand, of course, don't intentionally simplify the essay, or you'll sound shallow and come across as having the IQ of lasagna.

    The Lord has your future in his hands, and he's promised to lead you. All you have to do is follow him and be yourself … and keep the zoologists from boiling you like a frog.