The Write Way to Open the Doors to College

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As any seasoned youth worker knows, every youth has a story to tell. What’s less known is that telling the story well can be a youth’s ticket into college.

Just how that can be accomplished is shown in the soon-to-be released third edition of 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays: What Worked for Them Can Help You Get into the College of Your Choice. (St. Martin’s Griffin $14.99).

As the book’s title implies, it’s not just beneficial reading for those trying to help a youth gain entry to an Ivy League school, but to just about any college where writing a personal statement or essay  is part of the application process.

The youths whose essays are featured in this book didn’t go on ad nauseam about themselves, their GPAs, what clubs they belonged to, or what they see as their best qualities and attributes. Rather, they mostly focused on a particular childhood or adolescent experience and wrote about it in a way that gave the readers (in this case, college admissions officers) insights into who the youths are as reflective human beings and how they’ve been shaped by life’s ups and downs.

And they didn’t need a lot of words to do it. The essays take from two to three book pages. Yet, each one essentially represents a chapter in a youth’s life.

The essays range from those about mundane experiences, such as a Noah Hoch’s Bus Window Revelations, which recounts his reflections while onboard a bus with his teammates to away games, to personal triumphs, such as Elizabeth Meller’s Charlie, which recounts how becoming a superhero-like, cape-wearing mascot for her sister’s robotics team helped her overcome her social anxieties.

Some youths broke the mould, such as Chi Zhang, who wrote about himself by stringing together a series of clever statements about himself in an essay titled Simple Sentences, which begins: If you give me an inch, I’ll convert it to centimeters.

Other youths take harrowing childhood experiences and build upon how those experiences helped shape them into who they are today.

Take, for instance, In a Pickle, by Sha Jin. In this piece, Jin – the daughter of Chinese immigrants – recounts a dramatic encounter she and her family had with the Houston police when she was 4 years old and her parents left her home alone to go to work.

In the essay, Jin looks back on the experience and similar situations in her childhood as having made her more independent and tenacious.

“My unforgettable experiences as a first-generation immigrant, whether it was staying home alone or sleeping in a car, have given me self-reliance, responsibility, determination and overarching humor.”

And she thanks her parents, not for leaving her at home alone to go to work, but for taking the risk associated with making the move to another country in search of a better life.

“My father, after arriving in the United States with only $600 in his pocket, turned what was a suicidal gamble into the American dream. I hope to be a doer, not a dreamer, by building on what my parents began.”

Jin’s essay, like others throughout the book, is followed by a critique, including assessment of  what made her essay work.

“The ‘immigrant experience’ typically makes for a tough college essay, usually bordering on cliché, especially given the increasingly diverse pools of college applicants today,” writes Ashin Shah, a staff member of the Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, whose staff members provided the commentaries that follow each essay.

Jin’s immigrant experience essay works, Shah writes, because she transitioned from the narrative of her childhood abandonment “to an exposition on appreciating the sacrifices her parents have made and her personal motivations to succeed, given what her parents have given up for her – an insight that most applicants can draw whether they are immigrants or not, and that undergoes a refreshing treatment in this writer’s piece.”

If you work with youths who are headed to college – or ought to be – and writing a personal essay is a part of the application process, getting them to find a particular childhood experience that they can write about shouldn’t be all that hard.

The tricky part is helping the youths to write about that experience in a way that moves college admissions officers to say: This is who we want at our school.

Considering the selectivity of Harvard, it’s worthwhile to see what its students wrote to catapult themselves onto the campus. If it works at Harvard, it should work in other places.