A Critique Of My College Application Essay

College essay inspiration in West Berlin, Spring 1988

Dear Amy of 1990,

Congratulations! Your essay achieved its goal; you were accepted to college Early Decision! Good thing too, because the college which accepted you was the only place you wanted to attend. Honestly, it might have done you good to get out a bit and stretch your wings, but hey, you did the best you could and this essay got you there!

There’s more good news! Your essay was cited by your tough as nails A.P. English teacher, Dr. Elizabeth Hudgins, as a fine essay. She kept a copy in a special folder to show other students who needed help with theirs. This point of pride will carry you through your Senior year of high school. This euphoria fuels the writing of your very first book, the name of which will escape you twenty-one years later. (It remains unpublished. When presenting it, fait accompli, to Dr. Hudgins, the surprise of learning that which is written must also be edited, was beyond your skill-set at the time. You’ll get over it someday.)

Also, your mother claims this fine, fine, essay was added to a book of college applications distributed throughout Virginia as a remarkable example of a college application essay. You will have no memory of this. (Note to self: the memory thing will get worse. Take fine notes and develop sharp procedure writing skills. It will come in handy with your day jobs.) Twenty-one years later, the Internet will reveal no trace of this accomplishment. No worries, it was the Dark Ages.

Upon rereading this essay, you will remember writing most of it. Err, typing it. In the dining room. Which was a good trick since the family computer resided in the office. Was it typed on a typewriter? Probably. That may have been the last time you used an analog motorized device to write. The unpublished novel was written on the Apple IIc banished to your bedroom. It made way for a IBM 286 (or 386?) running Windows. (Twenty-one years later, you remain fond of the Apple. Daily use of their smartphone will blow your 1990 socks right off!)

And now, for the critique. What will you be proud of twenty-one years later? The great ideas. Superlative flow in places. Rock-solid voice and strong viewpoint. The pictures you painted as a seventeen year old were terrific!

I’ve got some bad news for you. The bad writing habits you struggle against are apparent here. Didya see that? They winked at you! Go on over and say hello because they will wage a gruesome blood-drenched battle with you to the death during the editing of your self-published book. (Which is what happens when you have two kids and subsist on Noggin television pap for several years. By the way, your brain is glad to have you back!)

Let me introduce the incomplete sentence. Three sentences in, and *BAM*, thar she blows! She’ll resurface several times throughout the essay. No worries, she’s no Moby Dick.

Then we have “I remember that…” Tsk tsk. Terrible! She’s not your friend! Neither is the repeating “I took,” as it is repetitious with no special emphasis. (Relax, you will tame this beast to great effect in your self-published novel.)

Yes, there’s some place dropping. Okay, a lot! Considering when you might do so, getting your ass accepted to the college of your choice is the way to do it. You go girl! We will chalk it up to karma balancing out all the time you spent trapped in the backseat of the family Volvo, motoring across Europe while dreaming of American movies and food and boys. Sigh.

Best. Outdoor. Disco. Ever. Seriously, I referenced partying and got away it? I didn’t know I was so cool!

Horse’s derrieres. You went there. Going there was as bad an idea as it was when that silly group of Spanish painters decided to paint them in the first place. Was that an attempt at humor? Alas, your intent was lost in the sands of time. Let’s pretend it was your intent and all is well.

Did you notice who was missing from the party? Those big twin bullies, the Gerrunds, who await you around every corner twenty-one years later. Past, present, future, hypothetical… doesn’t matter what you write now, there’s always a “was” followed by its fraternal twin verb-“ing” sneaking in the back door with a case of cheap beer and a fistful of homemade fireworks. I suppose every writer has one bad habit they can’t break. Have a drink, then slay them with your mighty red Editor’s Pen! It’s all good.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room. Transitions. Are they in this essay? Nope. You plum forgot to invite them or something. The ideas flow, the voice is consistent, but there are actual words that tie one paragraph to another. You will get better at rounding them up to watch the After School Special on ABC when you figure out how nice they are. And they are really nice! Sure, it takes a decade or so, but you’ll have fun hanging out on the weekends.

And what of the end result? Here it is: you wrote a strong college application essay which demonstrated your skill at storytelling in bite-sized chunks but yet is sprinkled with enough flaws to be representative of an actual seventeen year old while place-dropping the hell of Europe! Good job! You got in! You even graduated in four years! You’re so proud of you!

It is also a significant accomplishment in your writing life. Savor it. Know there will be more. You now have THE INTERNETS.


My actual college application essay, submitted December of 1990 to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College

“Opportunity: a good position, chance, or prospect for self-advancement.”*

Mine was that I had the opportunity to live in Paris, France for three years, when at the beginning of my seventh grade year, my family moved to Paris. After living all of my life (twelve and a half years) in Seattle, Washington, this was a big change. A new language, a new culture.

Sometimes an opportunity, at first, looks more like a challenge. Could I survive in a place where I couldn’t communicate in the only language I knew? A city of two million people? A culture over three thousand miles from my home? I realized I knew nothing about what it would be like. I left for Paris full of curiosity and questions.

I visited almost every country in Europe during my three years, as well as the Soviet Union, and both East and West Berlin. In all of these cultures, I had the opportunity to see some of the best paintings in the world. While learning to appreciate this art, I discovered there is more to appreciating a work of art than the beauty it contained. There is the creator’s idea behind it, the palette used, the frame it is hung in, the color of the wall it hangs on, the size of the room it is shown in, and also the architecture of the place where it is on exhibit. All of these factors affect how the audience sees the painting. I remember that during the during one period in Europe, the way you proved you could paint was by painting a horse’s derriere correctly. After I learned this, many painting with horses became sources of enjoyment.

Before I went to Paris, I thought “art” was a term used to describe paintings. Then I discovered “art” was sculptures, sketches, and photographs, ballet, modern dance and musical theater, classical and rock music, Greek tragedies, horror novels, and movies. Now I find “art” has many forms of expression. With this discovery I began to find art everywhere.

I took what is my favorite photograph on my trip to East and West Berlin. I took it while standing in West Berlin looking toward East Berlin. To someone who doesn’t know the story behind it, the photo appears to be an ordinary picture of a German Shepherd on a river bank. This friendly dog danced around me and licked my hands. If you look closely, you see a grey tower and a barbed wire wall on the other side of the river. What the photo doesn’t show is that on the other side, another German Shepherd was running up and down behind the wire barking fiercely. I was struck by the difference of temperaments of the dogs who were separated by a river and barbed wire. Like the people, one was free and one was not.

One of the things I think of fondly when I remember living there was the summer my family was invited to our French neighbor’s summer home in the South of France. They owned a farm house in a small city near Bordeaux. They invited us to the annual festival, and so we went into the city near dusk. As the street lights came on, a long procession with handmade floats began to take place. There was fireworks and music, and everyone was having fun. After the parade was over, I went with their daughter, Sophie to meet her cousin. We walked down through the narrow, crowded streets to a place by the river where a disco was set up and danced with the other teens until two in the morning. It was fun staying with them for a week. We spoke only French. Sophie and I learned a lot about one another. It felt natural to be immersed in their culture.

Yes, I survived the opportunity/challenge; actually, I did more than survive- I learned and grew and loved it. Besides, I am able to discuss horses’ derrieres and other wonders of a cultural nature.

*This was quote was taken from a hardback dictionary in 1990. I am unable to determine which one to cite but it is very similar to the definition provided by www.dictionary.com

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