Six hundred fifty words to change your life.
With only that much to work with, Scheherazade, the storytelling Arabian princess of “One Thousand and One Nights,” would have been done before 10 on the first night, even if she weighed each word as carefully as a high school senior trying to get into the college of her dreams. Those high school hopefuls don’t face execution by a tyrannical king if their stories fall short, but to them their fate is just as dire when completing the all-important personal statement for the Common Application. Will their 650 words or fewer gain them admission to their No. 1 choice, leading to the perfect job and the life they’ve always imagined? Or will their hopes be dashed by faceless admissions officers who somehow can’t see that they are indeed “the perfect match”?
The Common Application is well-known to most high school seniors. It’s a convenient clearinghouse that lets them apply to over 600 schools via a single online file of essays, recommendations and records. It is also an elephant of a meal, impossible to complete in a single sitting. Applicants should visit early and often to assemble their materials over time, and tailor bids to selected schools. A foundational part of the package, of course, is the personal essay. While several prompts are available to choose from for 2016-17, the Common App folks themselves say that nearly half of the more than 800,000 kids who used it last year chose this generic prompt: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
Don’t be daunted by the numbers. Even if they’re not one in half a million, students can up their odds by wowing admissions readers with an essay that pops. And, while there are 1,001 articles, consultants and writing tutors out there who claim they can make it happen, the average student can stand out by following a few simple guidelines as illustrated in the drafts that follow. Bottom line: A kid doesn’t have to spend big bucks or write like Shakespeare to get into college. Like the legendary Arabian princess who saved her life doing it night after night, they just have to tell a good story.
The essay that follows was written by a current senior at a Washington-area high school. She is a strong student in the top quarter of her class who is planning to apply to a range of schools, including George Mason and Notre Dame. The first draft was her best attempt before any coaching. The second one was the product after about an hour of discussion with me, a high school English teacher and a writing consultant. My comments are in italics.
Science and religion have been battling it out for centuries, or so many seem to think. Between the notorious arrest of Galileo in 1633 and the frequently debated theory of evolution, many have come to the conclusion that religion in general, but specifically the Catholic Church, is opposed to the idea of science.
First impressions: (A) The author can write pretty well, without errors in spelling or grammar. (B) Am I reading an introduction to a research paper about Galileo or a personal essay?
In the summer of 2015, I attended the Physics of Atomic Nuclei program at Notre Dame, a Catholic college. I was one of the only Catholics in the camp, and one fellow camper in particular had a lot of amazing questions about what the Church says concerning this or that scientific discovery. I was shocked. I had never been asked these questions before, and, though granted some of them were extremely deep, I was slightly disturbed to find that I could not answer some of them. This prompted me to further explore the relationship between the Church and science. It was also at this point I realized there must be a great number of people in the world who have these same questions but who are not in a comfortable position to ask them.
I love the clarity and directness. In the next few lines, I see what the essay is about: the conflict the writer feels between her interest in science and her religious faith. She has the most important ingredient for a really strong essay — something to say. Woe to the essay that doesn’t.
Or worse still, because of all the conflicts that are highlighted upon, they have settled down with the conclusion that the two cannot at all coexist. This could in fact lead to problems that impact humanity as a whole. If people felt they had to make a choice, they would end up sacrificing either the service of a brilliant mind or the service of a charitable soul. Mankind would be negatively impacted either way. My hope for the world is to get answers to these people along with the understanding that the Church and the scientific community do not completely disagree, but in fact have supported and worked with each other for centuries.
Okay, now I’m bored, not because the ideas are unimportant, but because it is too abstract. What this writer needs is a story to tell.
Both science and my faith have become inseparable from the definition of who I am. Having been immersed in the values, teachings, and practices of the Catholic faith from the day I was born, I have become formed morally as a person and well-informed of Catholic teaching as an intellectual. My faith is a relationship with God that has continued to keep me loving and learning in both the good times and the bad. Also from a young age, I displayed an interest in science. This quickly developed into a more specific love for the study of space, which eventually led me to astrophysics and cosmology. I have always loved learning about and seeing the wondrous complexity of the natural world.
Nice first sentence, showing a reasonable degree of introspection, especially for a high school student. The sentence promises me that the paragraph to come will explore both her interest in science and her faith. But she quickly confuses me by not addressing them in that order.
Personally, I want these two extremely important pieces of myself to be in harmony with each other and even possibly combined into the form of a career. In a more outward sense though, I want to extend this sense of coexistence to other people. Not only would this give a great deal of mankind a sense of unity and peace on a personal level, it would prevent tragic losses on both sides.
Um, okay. How do you make a career out of such different things? When I ask her later, the student has a cool answer: Turns out, the pope has an in-house astronomer!
I believe the solution for this issue should stem from finding the sources of the most common misconceptions. Perhaps clarifications or additional explanations need to be made regarding statements made by both the Church and members of the scientific community. The next step would be addressing these misconceptions in a way that is accessible to the entire public. This may take the form of an online setting where anyone can send in questions anonymously. This may create the need for individuals well versed in both science and Catholicism to be available to answer said questions accurately. The rest of this effort may come with time and the large amount of it needed to change any stereotype. All in all, the world should know the true relationship between these two major circles of thought, it may benefit us all.
Blah, blah. I’m comatose now. Finally, I just ask her: What is an example of how a scientific-minded person of faith addresses such misconceptions? Fortunately, she has an answer that becomes the opening of the new draft. Without it, the essay would have been a flop.
I am seated at a long hardwood table in the magnificent South Dining Hall of the University of Notre Dame. As a rising junior among other hungry high schoolers, I cannot help but think this looks like a scene out of Harry Potter. A scrawny, blond boy of fifteen sits across from me wearing a Star Trek tee shirt. Sam is one of the kids I recognize from the camp I am attending, “Physics of Atomic Nuclei.” Over burgers, light conversation about the decomposition of radioactive isotopes in bananas is made heavy by the mention of a certain characteristic of the institution: its Catholicism. Someone comments how interesting it is that a school like this would hold a space camp. I offer that it is not so strange, and Sam pipes up.
Now that makes me want to keep reading. Why? It’s the beginning of a story! A few key mechanics help it work: first-person narration, present tense, both external details and internal thoughts are included. And, best of all, it has voice.
“Yeah, but doesn’t the Catholic Church have, like, a lot of problems with recent science?” His tone was not attacking or offensive; he was genuinely curious. Through the discussion that followed, I realized I was one of the only Catholics on this half of the table, and maybe even in the entire camp.
Dialogue is another key feature. A line from her skeptical but open-minded friend is enough to take us into the scene.
I was shocked. Though I had attended Catholic school since Kindergarten and had held similar discussions, they had never reached the same intellectual depth, and I had never been the only one of my background there to answer. I realized I did not have enough information to fully answer some of his questions, like one about the Catholic Church’s stance on the theory of evolution.
It was also at this point I realized there are a lot of people who have these same questions but are not in a comfortable position to discuss them. Or worse still, have accepted that religion and science cannot coexist.
The reason I want to go to college is to find answers to these questions for myself and to share them with others. I believe, and want to help others see, that the Church and science are not incompatible, but simply offer two different and equally legitimate ways of looking at the world.
Okay, maybe all the abstractions aren’t gone. But she’s grounding it here and providing a reason to admit her to college: She wants answers and is willing to engage with people who might not share her views.
Both my faith and science are inseparable from the definition of who I am. Having been immersed in the values, teachings, and practices of the Catholic faith from the day I was born, I have become morally formed as a person. Also from a young age, I displayed an interest in science. This quickly developed into a more specific love for the study of space, which eventually led me to astrophysics and cosmology. Personally, I want these two extremely important pieces of myself to be in harmony with each other and even possibly combined into a career.
Fixed the parallel construction issue.
I’m pretty sure my dream job would be working as an astronomer for the Pope (yes, there is, in fact, an observatory at the Vatican!).
I also want to help other people understand that they can remain true to the Church and still be members of the scientific community. I believe identifying and addressing the most common questions is a good way to help convey this idea.
Taught me something here. And just one exclamation point’s worth of optimism speaks volumes about her sincerity.
Which is why I found myself explaining to Sam, my buddy from space camp, that the Catholic Church is not Fundamentalist. This means the Church recognizes and cherishes the spiritual significance of the creation story, but does not take it word for word. This also means there is room for the literal story, which may very well include evolution and all the discoveries made regarding the natural world.
The dialogue that started the essay was throwing a ball; this is catching it. Returning to the lunchroom conversation at the end of the essay provides unity and illustrates her efforts to build bridges between science and religion.
“Come on, Sam,” I said, somewhere along the way, “It’s not rocket science!” My new friend smiled at me, and I smiled back, realizing that we had both moved a little further down the path toward understanding not just the cosmos, but each other.
Cute ending, shows a sense of humor and ends the story on a satisfying note.
Emmet Rosenfeld teaches at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va.
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Here’s another key tip to keep in mind for your college applications, from College Essay Guy Ethan Sawyer!
The short answer is this: it’s okay to discuss religion in your essay as long as the take-away (or values) promoted in the essay are universal. Here’s what I mean:
In the past, I’ve had students write essay drafts that end with something like, “Since accepting Christ (or) learning to meditate (or) converting to Judaism, I’ve made it my goal to tell others about the difference that Christ/meditation/Judaism can make in their lives.” I call this the “missionary” essay. And it can be off-putting to readers, particularly to those who don’t share your religious beliefs (which, statistically speaking, is likely).
Instead, discuss the values you gained through your religion. How?
Step 1: Take a look at this Values List and ask yourself: what values have I gained through my religion?
Examples: “Getting used to wearing a turban in ninth grade helped increase my self-confidence and, interestingly, my grades went up that year!” (or) “Feeling judged by my youth group leader helped me better understand how my friend must have been feeling about me; I realized I was essentially doing the same thing to her.”
Check out the values displayed in those sentences: self-confidence and empathy. Nice! And anyone, no matter the religion or belief system, can get on board with those.
Step 2: Make sure the values you’re discussing are non-obvious and specific.
Obvious connections lead to boring essays.
Examples: “Playing in the band at church helped me learn the value of working with others” (seen it!) (or) “Volunteering at our mosque helped me develop myself personally” (super vague–say how!).
Step 3: Get feedback from someone who does not share your religious belief.
Once s/he has read the essay, ask the person: do you feel closer to me after having read that? If the answer isn’t “Yes,” or even if the person hesitates before responding, ask, “What would help you feel closer to me?”
Step 4: Listen with your entire being. Stay curious about his/her feedback to you.
Step 5: Thank the person and go back to the drawing board.
Because you are creative and original and you have something important to communicate.
For more personal statement help, check out www.collegeessayguy.com.
Ethan Sawyer, the College Essay Guy, has been helping students tell their stories for more than ten years. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, received an MFA from UC Irvine, and received two counseling certifications, one from UC Irvine and another from the Interchange Counseling Institute. He’s also a certified Myers-Briggs® specialist and his type (ENFJ) will tell you that he will show up on time, he’ll be excited to meet you, and, more than anything, he’s committed to–and an expert in–helping you realize your potential.
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