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Dear Mitch,

A couple of days ago you responded to a question about the essays for college applications, and I liked your idea.  I am hoping you were serious about planning to give pointers like that every week for a while.  If so, then please accept this reminder (I can tell you that several parents of students applying next term printed out your idea and I know some teachers who did as well.  You wrote about the inherent interest of "failure" and how that topic could make a more intriguing essay than the usual "success" story.

So thank you for addressing the mysterious subject of trying to excite people in admissions, and thank you for starting off with such a good idea! 

Continued success in the New Year,

Mr. Franklin



Dear Mr. Franklin, 

I'm glad you found it useful.

Now comes a tip which will seem obvious to some readers but which I believe is so important that I would err on the side of presenting an 'obvious' rather than risk letting it slip away from any discussion of the application essay:  

                            KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL.

It is a cliché, I know, and I believe I only use it when coaching students through the application process.  For this answer, I am not going to move directly to the main point; rather, I will meander toward it and hope you will gradually grasp the reason for this approach. 


Students frequently select a topic or event that somehow thrust them onto center-stage for one of life's 'charged' instants where they are given the opportunity to rise to whatever level is necessary and exercise sharp judgment, and leaving them forever 'mature'. Other times students describe an experience in which they had to risk something important to help another; beautifully, in just four or five paragraphs, they conclude their tale resigned to accepting the position of  a modest, small-town hero for at least a day.  Still other times students will describe an event in which they were a mere witness to an action, and only toward the end introduce themselves as a secondary character making clinical observations about the others. The narrator in this scenario usually plays a relatively small role, yet by way of proximity, is struck with a profound idea. Of course, there is the 'lasting impact...'. 

The challenge that arises in each of these essay types is this: When writing about one's intense experience, it often takes real time, perhaps several years, before enough distance can be reached to write effectively and fairly. With such a period, it is difficult to acquire a fair view of each character in a conflict.  It may sound strange to read that word here – character, because it is a word that is usually associated with fiction, but in these essays there is almost always at least one 'character' other than the narrator.  So, typically (and ideally) some form of conflict is introduced.  And then the student, a teenager, of course, is in process of self-evaluation and trying to shape the adult he or she hopes to become. A large part of the process for many teenagers takes the form of justifying one's actions and rationalizing moves which a decade later might feel harder to rationalize. For a sizeable period of years, most people commit themselves to their view of an issue to such an extent that little room is left for contrary facts or new information to be considered.

Ironically, it is that passion -- without a reflective moment to at least attempt placing oneself in the opponent's shoes -- that can come across to the reader as a sign of a narrator's immaturity thinking.  That is NOT consistent with the kind of openness to learning and changing – important ingredients for success in higher education and adult life. 

Now, as you might have surmised by this point, bursting to come out of me and onto my keypad is an example or two from students with whom I have had the honor of working and learning.  And even years after working with the most adamant student-writer, I still find those lessons to be significant, sensitive, and – obviously – memorable.  They contain the moments when student and teacher instantly learn more about each other's stage of thinking, and 'connect' in that way that young teachers-to-be dream they will experience on a daily basis.  In short, to use yet another metaphor, the teacher gets the delight of seeing a light bulb flash on, as the student gets the bigger delight of seeing something anew in a way that steps his/her mind up a notch in sophistication. 


What????  Haven't I completely dropped whatever ball I could have dreamed I'd been holding? 

Uh, maybe. 

But then, I have already gained acceptance to -- and graduated from -- a University whose name still warms my heart.

Back to the ball.  When used outside the arena of sports, the concept of keeping one's 'eye on the ball' generally means to keep one's focus clear and to avoid getting lost along the way to the goal you are pursuing.  And that goal on the college application is not to convince the reader that you were 'correct' to boycott your school on a given day, or, for another example, you were 'correct' NOT to prove that you had ample justification for punching a monkey at a public zoo.  NO, the goal of everything you do on your college application is to gain acceptance to that college.  You should (you MUST) do so honestly, of course, and ethically, and appropriately, but THAT is the ball.  

Each application costs money and takes time, so it is a rather odd endeavor to complete such a form for a school that you do not wish to attend. If you cannot come up with ample justification for punching a particular monkey at a zoo, perhaps your regret over that part of your past would make a more mature essay and be more likely to open the hearts of people on an admission committee.

Enough preamble; Now comes a true example.  It happened several years ago, yet the moment that the student spent processing my advice and deciding upon a two sentence adjustment in her essay still convinces me that there are times when a teacher can seize an opportunity to make a quiet but lasting impact. And now.... here goes...

The student was a female, a teenager (of course), and her essay was an intelligently written piece describing an argument she had had that year with her father.  The argument escalated and ended with something approaching a slap/grabbing-motion against her to physically stop the girl from proceeding without giving her father an opportunity he deserved.  He needed to be 'heard' before his daughter acted upon a decision she had just made.

I knew and liked both parents, and, of course, I was fond of the student (as teachers almost always are after working with someone for a season or two).  Also, the student impressed me with her intelligence, as did her parents.  The event the student chose to depict on her application included the first and only time the man had ever been too frustrated and/or panicked to communicate what he felt he needed to with words. 

During the scene she described, she was, of course, angry.  And outraged, and hurt. And confused.  She felt all of these emotions, and all were caused by the man she had always known to be 'soft-spoken".

The problem that arose was this:  Not much time had passed since the event and her writing of it, and she was still angry.  And outraged. And hurt. Oh, and let's not forget confused.  This was a chance to articulate on paper why she was correct and justified, and why her FATHER was NOT

And she did a fine job of it. 

HOWEVER, she had taken her eye off the ball.  Once again, the point of the essay, after all is said and done, is to show the admissions people the most you can be, NOT anything as insignificant as your having been "right" in a particular argument. 

If I had come right out and stated it like that, and then followed up with what I was thinking (which was that by portraying her devoted father in a negative light in her one-and-only chance to show a school who she is, she would risk tainting the entire application with a negative 'light'), she probably would have seen me as just another adult on her father's 'side'.  And it might have taken us a while to get all eyes back on the ball.  So, instead, I reminded her of a recent discussion we had had regarding one important element that often distinguishes well-crafted mysteries from the hoard of lesser ones.  That element is this:  good fiction, even crime fiction depicting gruesome crimes, tends not to have characters that are 'all good', and they tend not have characters that are pure 'evil'.  If they did, then each character would be as two-dimensional as paper dolls, and the story would be unlikely to raise the sot of 'inner struggle' for a reader hoping to be stretched.  No, we decided, ALL characters, and all REAL people, are complicated blends of traits, often evolving in different directions during different portions of their life.  I asked the student which character she thought she would 'know more', just from reading the story she wrote -- the girl or the father?  She looked the piece over and concluded that she felt she would know the girl better ('or at least see things more her way' because there was 'something about her' that just felt 'more reasonable' and, therefore, more 'likeable'.  I asked her if she thought her father had actually been trying to be dislikeable.

"ABSOLUTELY!" she said. 

Then she paused and conceded that his goal was probably not that.  I told her that after reading the essay several times I happened to agree with the 'girl's' side of the argument depicted. 

This surprised her, but at least now she did not have to expend any energy getting me to see the merit of her position.  

But, as it happened, the character of the father, at least on the afternoon depicted in the essay, did not see it the way I saw it.  For him, that moment of life was different.  I asked my student, "Why?"

"Because he can be SOOOO THICK!" she replied. 

I shrugged.

The girl took a moment to consider and calm down. Then she opened the discussion to let in the fact that it might not be easy for a man to realize that the only child he has -- and probably the only child he will ever have -- is disappearing.  The child has to vanish for the young woman to emerge.  It is probably an interesting and rewarding experience to watch and influence, we agreed, to raise a child and have it 'work', BUT, I asked, at the moment portrayed in her essay, Could she imagine the shock of a man's sudden realization that his dreaded future was upon him.   Might it be a little unsettling, I asked, to discover that everyone was getting older in giant leaps?

We took a break, and I returned a couple of brief phone calls. The student doodled on her notebook, and then came up with a sentence of interior monologue for the character of her father.  It rounded him out.  And, in turn, of course, it rounded out the character of her. She improved the essay. 

A lot.

I was asked to promise her that I would never let her father see what she wrote.   I asked her to promise me she would keep a copy stashed away.  That way, if, for some unimaginable reason, she ever decided to share it with him, she could.

I do not know if she ever did.  I do know that she was accepted to one of the most selective colleges in the nation, which also happened to be her first choice.  And from there, she has gone on to become an even more enthusiastic learner than the one I first met. 

Better to lose an argument than lose a friend, we agreed.  And it is better to be 'wrong' and 'lose a fight' than lose an opportunity -- especially if the opportunity involves admission to the school of your dreams, which students deserve. 

Keep your eye on the ball: Developing characters in a few hundred words shows that you can write well.  No one reading applications cares who may have been 'right' when the characters wasted an afternoon arguing. 

Hope this helps,


P.S. (As they used to say), if you didn't catch it, I tried to combine 'form and content' by using dialogue, etc. to develop my answer beyond a flat narrative.  AND THAT IS WORTH TRYING ON YOUR APPLICATION!)

(But also try to 'meander' less than you see here.  After all, your essay is more important to you than mine.)