Monday, June 2, 2008

College Essay Camp at Tufts

You don't know whether to laugh or cry reading the Wall Street Journal story at right (from 2005) about high schoolers going to camp and signing up for on-line courses to figure out how to craft the killer "college essay."
The last sentence of the piece -- "And the diamond buckle: 'I always find a way to shine,' she says." -- will surely make us gag. One wonders whether some of these services might teach the applicants to sound like egotistical jerks, or maybe it comes naturally.
Still, there are some tips herein:
Thomas O'Neill, admissions director at Chicago, says the school is asking "how does this person handle ideas?"
James Hughes, a high school English teacher in California (and Tufts Essay Camp counselor), advises, "Show us something about yourself, not everything about yourself. You want to offer something only you could write," and "what makes it interesting is the detail."
So you want something original. Well, how do you think of something original? Chuck Berry, who more or less invented rock and roll guitar some 50-odd years ago, always insists, "There is nothing new under the sun," that every guitar lick he created was just Charlie Christian, Muddy Waters, Elmore James and many other guitarists who came before him put together in a different way. Sometimes, you can be original and not know it.
Rule of Thumb: you can't think of something original when someone sits you down and tells you to. Instead, think of what you'd rather be writing about. Or what is the last thing you absolutely had to tell a friend about?
Another rule of thumb: Probably it's easier to put down some ideas for a college application essay now, in June, than it will be under a deadline next fall.

A few years ago a friend who works in New York City couldn't think what to write in his 25th Reunion essay. I suggested he might write about the unusual morning when he walked up out of the subway and saw a 747 slam into his office building, and how that affected him. He hadn't thought of that. Sometimes the best topics are right in front of us, but we don't see them.
Probably millions of youngsters would love to write about why they love Harry Potter books. Probably each Potter-lover could do that, and each essay might be unique in its own way.
As Mr. O'Neill says, it's how you handle ideas.
Coming soon: "What's an idea?"

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