COURTESY OF: Susan Svrluga The Washington Post
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.