Story to College welcomes a guest post from Yue Ren, a freshman at Harvard College. Yue currently works at Argopoint LLC, a Boston-based management consulting firm.
Photo credit: Getty Images/George Doyle
I have found Carol’s work on Story to College to be amazing in helping prospective college students write great essays. Not only have I found her advice integral to writing great college application essays, but also applications for jobs, internships, and more. I would like to provide my thoughts on college essays to highlight the importance of these elements in the real world.
When admission officers flip through your application, they see your transcript, GPA, SAT scores, the quick descriptions of your extracurricular activities, perhaps a few AP scores and even a couple of awards, but all that seems very quantitative. What part of the application defines you? After writing quite literally over a dozen college essays and supplement essays, I have a couple of observations. Although I do not have all the answers, I believe these tips would have been helpful when I was writing my first college essay as well as subsequent essays for jobs:
- Express yourself with a story: In my experience, the best way to communicate an idea is to tell a quick, concise anecdote. Think about all those lessons you have learned in your extracurricular activities or throughout your life. What do these stories tell about your talents, aspirations, or character? I also believe the manner in which you tell a story, including your tone, mood, and attitude, reflects on how you react to certain challenges or successes. This provides just as much information to the reader about your character as the actual story you write. Therefore, word choice in your expression is crucial.
- Be Human: Why is talking to your friend so much more fun than reading an old biography? Construct your stories with feelings and emotions such that the reader can experience the breadth and depth of your happiness, anger, pain, or excitement. If you are ever wondering why your friend refuses to give any hints about his or her essay, it might be because it is personal; it might reflect intense emotions. A journey in a day in the life of you is filled with crescendos and decrescendos that may ultimately shape your outlooks. Do not be afraid to share them with admissions.
- Write Truthfully: Honestly, lying is hard. In all likeliness, the details of a real story derive much more substance to you that you can elaborate on, unlike in a lie. Save yourself the trouble of trying to write about stuff that you have never done, and just pour your heart and mind into those events you have faced. If you did a thousand extracurricular activities in high school, now is a perfect chance to talk about a few of those thousand topics.
- Seek Peer Critique: Although many people choose to not let anyone see their essay, I found that letting your teachers and maybe a close friend see your essay brings new perspective. Going back to word choice: some words simply rub people the wrong way, and it is probably best not to rub admissions the wrong way. You cannot control what your reader thinks or how your reader interprets your essay; you can control how you express your ideas. Therefore, express them wisely and always be conscious of your audience.
Remember that the essay is just one part of your application, but I would recommend treating it as the part of the application that truly identifies you. It is an opportunity, not another barrier keeping you from clicking that submit button.
Carol’s Story to College blog is truly awesome. I would check “How to get started on my college essay”, “7 Things Admission Counselors Are Looking For”, and more for great advice on college essays and applications. I know I found them abundantly helpful when I was writing my essays. Her advice extends beyond just the scope of college essays. I would like to stress that for courses, jobs, or internships, I found these tips equally as applicable and useful as they are for college essays. In fact, when I wrote my cover letter for Argopoint, I specifically used examples of past experiences and extracurricular activities in anecdote form to highlight my skills and abilities. I also sought help from peers who have experience with applying to jobs, and who helped critique my cover letter. Of course being frank and honest is important. Therefore, I found Story to College to be helpful for college essays as well as for applications in your future.
Guest Post by Hiten Samtani
Past the metal detectors and the group of police officers at the entrance of the W. H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School in East New York lies a cavernous auditorium. Inside it, 24 students were being taken through an exercise.
“How would you describe yourself? ” asked Alyssa Molina, a 17-year-old with an upturned nose and impressively curly hair.
“Opinionated, passionate, and optimistic,” replied 17-year-old Lizeth Navas, adjusting her purple glasses perched on her nose and grinning to reveal her braces.
“Open minded, to an extent,” Alyssa suggested.
The banter was part of ‘Story to College’ a narrative writing and storytelling workshop, conducted for high school seniors from the Scholars’ Academy, a screened middle and high school in Rockaway Park, Queens that was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The school, which is known for its college readiness program and holistic embrace of technology, remains shuttered. Its high school students and staff have been temporarily relocated to W.H. Maxwell, which was removed from the list of turnaround schools in the spring but continues to see low graduation and attendance rates coupled with the effects of being in a relatively high-crime neighborhood.
Carol Barash, the founder of the workshop, said she feared the storm could jeopardize the college prospects of the students, many of whom are applying to selective schools that require supplemental essays. “I don’t want them to be stopped at the five-yard line,” Ms. Barash, whose own home in South Orange, N.J. lost power for a week, said.
Next, students were split into groups of two and three. Taking turns with an audio recorder were Sabrina Borno and Jeanné Gilliard, both 17. They joked, teased, and listened to each other to help uncover what workshop instructor Jack Scotti called “a moment—that single, telling incident that reveals something about you.”
Sabrina, who during the school week lives with her grandmother in Ocean Village in The Rockaways, evacuated to her uncle’s home when Sandy struck. She described the storm’s aftermath as “mindblowing.”
“It resembled a third world country,” she said. “The National Guard was out there. There was no power and people were looting homes.” In her application essays to visual arts programs at the School of Visual Arts and the Pratt Institute, she hopes to reconstruct what she saw.
Sabrina and her classmates talk to CNN about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Though Sabrina is acclimating to her new stomping grounds, she said she misses her campus and especially its gadgets. “We had Smart Boards and iPads in every classroom,” she said. “To go from that to writing down notes on a piece of paper, it gets pretty frustrating.”
Ana Solares, a bespectacled 17-year-old clad in gray, said that her family and others around her underestimated the impact Sandy would have.
“We’re Rockaway people,” Ana said, speaking in the measured tones of the lawyer she aspires to be. “We stayed.”
She wrote her college essays-- she’s applying to Cornell, Vassar and Macaulay Honors College—with the aid of a generator, she said. She described the challenges of switching
“You feel reassured,” she said, her stoic demeanor cracking slightly, “when you see your teachers at the end of the metal detectors.”
Some of the students present said they escaped the brunt of Sandy’s wrath. Others, such as Lizeth, weren’t as fortunate. The storm gutted her home, and she had to cope with seeing floating remnants of her furniture and Christmas ornaments. Though she now lives in a RV, she spent days bouncing around homes of relatives and friends, she said. “They had Netflix, so we watched movies and the news. I saw the damage to the main strip, 116th street. It’s where I take the bus, buy my milk. That’s when I realized that ‘Holy Cow, this is real!”
Ms. Barash, who founded Story to College in 2010, said writing had helped her come to terms with her own traumatic childhood experiences, including being raped at the age of 13. “I realized for myself how much liberation happened from writing about it,” she said.
Indeed, Michelle Villa, Scholars’ Academy’s counselor and director of the college office, said that many students wanted to change their essay topics and write about their experiences in the storm’s wake. She added that the workshop would help put students back into college application mode. “The hurricane threw off their priorities,” the visibly pregnant Ms. Villa said. “They had to focus on rebuilding homes and helping out their neighbors.” Many students still didn’t have the Internet at home, she said. “They were doing their apps at night, from Starbucks.”
The transition to Brooklyn had been a challenge, she said, but added that the school had been helped by both public and private sources. The city paid for private busing services to transport students to the temporary location, donated laptops through the iLearnNYC and offered virtual learning programs to displaced students. The teachers’ union also donated supplies, and Ms. Villa said that an elementary school “adopted” Scholars’ Academy and gave them a Thanksgiving feast. Remarkably, even on the first day back after the storm, attendance was at 86 percent, she said.
Though they temporarily share a building, students from Scholars’ Academy and W.H.Maxwell have little interaction. Scholars’ students enter the building from a separate entrance and are sequestered on the fifth floor. Michael Ammirati, the assistant principal in charge of discipline at W.H. Maxwell, said that there was some initial concern about the logistics of shepherding 402 extra students.
“We also wondered if our students would feel infringed upon,” Mr. Ammirati said. “None of that came to fruition; our kids have been very supportive. Sharing the space with Scholars’ Academy, Mr. Ammirati said, was akin to living with “the quiet roommate that doesn’t really bother you.”
But Scholars’ students said they felt out of place in the new building. “We’re kind of not wanted here,” Lizeth said. “We’ve just colonized.”
Still, there were positives to take from the devastation. The students took stock of their situation and adapted, and many gained a fresh perspective on what they hoped to achieve at college. Moreover, being uprooted from the comfortable humdrum of pre-Sandy life in The Rockaways and having to deal with dramatic upheaval did something to the class. “There’s a sense of community,” Sabrina said. “Everyone’s walking together, pulling through, closer than we ever were before.”