Waking up college admissions.

Author:Glancy, Gabrielle

IF YOU COULD BE a fly on the wall of an admissions person, here is what you would see: she sits down with a pile of folders, or a folder of files (on the computer.) In them are the recommendations, grades, SAT scores, and essays of thousands of prospective college students. The contents of one folder look, well, pretty much exactly like the contents of another. Here they are, all of these shining stars--these amazing three-dimensional beings, eager to please--in little more than black and white on the page. It is going to be a long day.

What is an admissions director to do? She stretches, sighs, stretches again, and has some coffee--the elaborate ceremony involved in preparing to be bored has begun--and bored she is. Then it happens--the almost unimaginable. As if by some miracle, the first sentence of a student's essay leaps off the page, wrestles the cup of coffee out of her hands, and grabs her by the collar. There is something so powerful in the way the essay is written, so gripping, so authentic, so real, that the admissions director cannot turn away. She actually reads every single word. Although this does not guarantee acceptance, it certainly increases the changes of a candidate being seriously considered.

It is very difficult for someone in admissions to say no to an essay that has been read from start to finish, especially if she was moved to laughter, tears, or both, by what she has just read. I know. I worked in admissions. On those rare occasion in which I read an essay from beginning to end while never reaching for my cup of coffee, that student got in.

Yes, there are other factors but, in these moments, I recall looking over the rim of my readers at the grades, recommendations, and test scores, just to be sure there were no red flags, so I could justify my decision to press "yes," but how do you write that winning essay, that narrative personal statement that grabs ahold of the admissions person and does not let go?

Mind you, writing never is easy, or rarely so. It helps to have a good understanding of how writing occurs, to have a clear sense of product (what you are trying to achieve) and process (how you go about getting there).

I had a friend when I was a kid who had Japanese fighting fish. One night, during a sleepover party at her house, one of them devoured the other. I remember staring at them for a long time before hitting the sack--their fancy, elaborate blue fins like diaphanous curtains, swaying this way and that...

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