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Question

1/21/2

Dear Mitch,

 

My son isn't applying to college until next term, but he has already decided on the school of his dreams and has studied their application.  There is a choice of essays from he has to select, and, as I guess is the usual, he is only allowed to do one of them.  That doesn't bother him one bit, because he has had his heart set on one of the choices anyway.  The question basically says to describe the person who was most influential in your life, and tell why.  There's a word limit, of course, and all the usual rules of the other schools' essays, but I was wondering, is there one or two tips you could pass along for this type of essay that might save him some big mistake or save him overlooking an important angle he could otherwise have included that other kids might neglect?

 

Sincerely,

Connor B.

 

Answer

Dear Connor,

Yes, I do have some thoughts he would be wise to consider.

 

I also received permission from a student who a couple of years ago did exactly that essay (it's a common one on many applications).

 

I will however change the name of the student's teacher, because he is a very close friend of mine and gets easily embarrassed when students write their essays about him. 

 

THREE PIECES OF ADVICE:

 

(1) Astoundingly, students (and their parents((??!!??)) ) often send off an essay in which somehow, either implicitly or explicitly, the student is the hero of the story.  NO!  DO NOT DO THAT! The reader is much more likely to respond with an open heart to the student as a developed person if that student is the opposite of a hero:  vulnerability, self-expressed, is a sign of maturity and an important mark of someone who wants to learn and grow.  Heroes – self-described, feel that others could learn more from them than the reverse.

 

(2) Make the story move as much as possible, and I'm using the word "move" literally.  Just because it says to describe someone, doesn't mean you cannot (and should not) find a way to describe the person through an event with movement.  If possible, get the subject of your story to be traveling through real space – such as walking down a hall or entering a classroom.

 

(3) See if you can find a way to show some new insight between the end of your time with that influential person and the present.  A student, like anyone else, should be growing and reflecting constantly.  If you think hard enough, there has to be something you realize a year later or even a month later when you sit down to write your essay that escaped you at the time and you maybe even wish you had commented upon back then.

 

Okay, now, WITHOUT A SINGLE WORD CHANGED (EXCEPT FOR THE TEACHER'S NAME), HERE IS ONE OF A THICK COLLECTION THAT MY FRIEND (THE TEACHER) HAS HAD TO HUMBLY PROOFREAD. (Though, secretly, I suspect deep down he appreciates each and every one – maybe even takes a quiet pride in them, figuring he must be doing something worth doing...)

 

(So, to protect this teacher from being embarrassed, we will not use his real name.  We'll call him 'Rich Fadler')

 

Here goes:


   As we visited one of the school's math classes, Rich Fadler taught about human nature.  He asked the class:  which sign would be most likely to make us take only one newspaper, and which sign would best restrain other people from taking as many as they wanted?  The three options were:  "Please take only one paper, it's the right thing to do;" "Please take only one paper, I don't make much and the well-being of my family depends on it;" and, "If you take more than one paper, authorities will be notified."  By the end of the class, each student believed that the first sign would stop them from taking extra papers, but that the last sign was needed to do the same for the majority.  His point to the lesson was that everyone believes they are much more moral than everyone else.  It was the first time that anyone brought me down to earth with such a resounding thud.

   Before I came along, Rich did not have a specific job at school.  He worked within the math department, often visiting different math classes to add his expertise and unique insights.  By the beginning of seventh grade, I had completed my entire school's math curriculum, and so I was handed over to him.  However, his lessons were far from typical.  We had no classroom, only a small office; our lessons would often be taught while searching for more spacious accommodations. I would accompany him on trips to various math classes, or whatever other daily tasks he had to do.  A quintessential example is the time his wife had asked him to run errands.  We discussed Boolean algebra on our way to, through, and from a local supermarket.

   Rich's style of teaching lent itself to these unique circumstances.  Unlike the typical math class, which relies on taking notes and working from paper and calculators, Rich emphasized working from within the head. Our lessons would be interspersed with idiosyncratic jokes, or riddles that he had recently heard.  Because of him, I learned not only all the high school mathematics required in New York State by the time I left middle school, but much more about life.  He taught me a strong sense of self-awareness, gave me a much greater respect for learning, and reminded me to always stay in good humor.

   When I graduated from middle school, the last thing Rich gave me was a gift that stayed true to his clever character.  It was a jar full of rocks.  He had written my name multiple times on each rock in the jar.  After learning from him for two years, I understood the message immediately – "Max rocks."  In addition to everything he had taught me, he wanted to leave me with one last memento.  Although I didn't see it then, I now picture Rich sitting late at night at his kitchen table, twelve ounces of caffeinated beverage by his side, inscribing rock after rock.  I can appreciate now, more than ever, that he is the one that rocks.

 

Hope this helps,

Mitch