College Essay

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One seemingly normal day in junior year, my friend and I were taking a train together home from school. We were on an extremely crowded F train headed for Queens. Packed against the door that separated one train car from another, overly warm and squished with no pole nearby to hold onto, it was pretty uncomfortable--typical of New York City subways. As the train jerked to a sudden stop, I tripped and fell forward to the train door that supposedly separated us from the next train car- and something struck me. Through the window of this train door, I could see a gray backpack lying on the floor. I looked at my own backpack, which was lying against the train door on my side. I immediately noticed that it wasn't my backpack that was being reflected through the window, because my backpack was pink, not gray. Confused, I questioned my friend Rachel about this. She was as lost as I was. We could also hear strange cranking sounds coming from behind the door, but couldn't see what was causing them.

"Maybe we're just really tired," I said. However, no matter how hard we tried, we could not stop pondering this topic. What came next was the cool part. Using reason and logic, we worked our way through this problem. We actually made it like the scientific method. The problem was obviously the fact that what we saw in this window was not what was supposed to be reflected. We tried thinking of possible hypotheses, but to no avail. Our procedure was basically to use our brains and observation skills until we could reach a conclusion. To start, we observed that the window didn't reach all the way to the floor, so my backpack on the ground couldn't have been reflected. I suggested that perhaps the gray backpack we saw was real and not reflected, but it was still strange because we could still see our faces reflected on the window. At one point, out of frustration, I was tempted to just yank open the train door and get my questions answered once and for all, despite the big sign on the door saying "Do Not Enter". However, we could still hear the strange mechanical sounds coming from behind the door, and Rachel advised me not to open it in case of danger. I sighed. We were back to brainstorming ideas again.

After a period of bouncing ideas back and forth, we finally reached a conclusion. I knew that train cars were supposed to be connected by thick but flexible cords, meaning that the other train car was supposed to be jiggling from side to side, but it wasn't. Rachel then pointed out that we should be able to see the other people in the next train car, but we only saw darkness. As we stared through the window, it took us a while to see the contour of a neck and we realized that the "darkness" was the black suit of a man leaning against the window of the next train door. All of a sudden, everything clicked. There must be an extra compartment attached to our train door for the conductor! The gray backpack never fell because it was sitting on a floor, and not wiggling cords. The mechanical sounds we were hearing must be the conductor pulling the levers to open and close the train side doors, except he was at one corner of the compartment that we couldn't see through the window. The compartment must also have a window itself so that we could still see the people in the next train car.

You should have seen the gleeful excitement on our faces as everything fell into place. When the train stopped at our station, we immediately ran out to know once and for all what we had been looking at for 45 minutes. We were left laughing hysterically as we saw the conductorâ€™s head pop out of a window in front of us. Since elementary school, I had always been taught to use the scientific method to solve problems, but until now I never would have thought it useful to apply to a real life situation. Perhaps adults who overheard us were in disbelief at our slowness, but for me, solving this mystery with our own logic made this the most accomplished train ride ever.

Do you think my topic is too insignificant and weird for me to use? Also, is it bad to write this essay like a story instead of like an actual essay?

• College Essay -

It's hard to tell. What were your exact instructions?

• College Essay -

Well one of the options for the Common App is to:

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

So do you think this would be acceptable as my "significant experience", or is it too strange?

• College Essay -

I think you need to make it clearer why you consider this to be significant. Other than that, it seems fine.

• College Essay -

You might want to read through the first three or four of the links in these search results -- not particularly to change the basis of your paper, but to make sure you aren't inadvertently including something or excluding something major.

• College Essay -

Thanks! I will try to elaborate more why this experience is special to me in my conclusion...

• College Essay -

Since this essay is a "common essay" and will be seen by all of the schools to which you apply, it is a very important essay. It can determine whether you get into any of your favorite schools.

I take your essay seriously. This response comes from a lawyer who wrote seven successful college and law school entrance essays for himself and has edited dozens of them for others (one of whom was admitted to Harvard Law School), as well as having written more than a dozen successful scholarship application essays.

I'm sorry to have to say so, but this is a terrible topic for a college entrance essay, for several reasons:

It IS bad to write this essay like a "story instead of an actual essay," because they are asking you for (and requiring of you) an "essay." The first rule of answering an essay question is to carefully read the question and give them what they ask for, using the words they have used in the essay question itself, like "significant," "experience," "achievement," "risk" and "ethical dilemma." If you don't do this, you show either that you didn't understand the question (poor reading comprehension) or that you refuse to take their question seriously (you are contemptuous of authority), and you would be punished for that in the admissions decisions.

Your essay should tell a story, and it can be a narrative that describes a problem and how you overcame it, but your "story" is far too conversational and informal for a college entrance essay.

This is problem is closely related to a fundamental purpose for them in asking you for an essay in the first place, which is for the admissions personnel to judge your vocabulary and your ability to write clearly and concisely. Because you wrote this essay as if recounting an experience to another teenager, you didn't show off your vocabulary and your ability to edit out unnecessary words the way you would if you writing for adults who are college admissions personnel making a very important decision. So, your choice of writing a story in an informal and conversational tone hurts you both in terms of content (inconsequential) and by not showing off your vocabulary.

Another purpose of the college application essay is to determine whether you, the applicant, think deeply about the world and your responsible role in the world, and whether you think about what can make the world a better place for a lot of people.

The best essay will show a mature concern for important problems for the people of the world and a determination on your part to make the world a better place.

When they use the word "significant" in the question, they mean to ask you whether you have struggled with a question or issue that had an effect on or relevance for a whole group of people (e.g. "women," "Latinos" "disabled figure skaters," "Americans" or a whole city or a whole country, or even you as a victim of child abuse or gender discrimination -- and not just a momentary curiosity for two teenagers riding a train.

If you write strictly about yourself, the word "significant" would include facing a physical or mental disability (an "experience") or overcoming a lifelong immobilizing fear or life-depends-on-it challenge ("achievement"), like coming from a poor, uneducated family and getting great high school grades in spite of your difficulties.

Your proposed essay does not tackle a problem that is, at first glance, truly "significant" for you or for the world. The problem you tackle is only a passing curiosity, even TO YOU.

Ask yourself what would have happened if you had NEVER resolved this question of the backpack and you will realize how insignificant it really is. It would not have changed your life or anyone else's in any way at all, unless this question tied up your mind (and yours only) with a nagging puzzle.

• College Essay -

Your "story" works as creative writing, but not as a college admissions essay.

Look for the word "special" in the essay question and you probably won't find the word "special." "Special" is NOT synonymous with "significant," but "significant" is a key word in the question you were asked. According to Merriam Webster's Dictionary, "significant" means:

Definition of SIGNIFICANT

1
: having meaning; especially : suggestive <a significant glance>
2
a : having or likely to have influence or effect : important <a significant piece of legislation>; also : of a noticeably or measurably large amount <a significant number of layoffs> <producing significant profits>

In a sense, this is a trick question the have posed for your common essay. Although they say your essay should come from your own life "experience," if you look at definition number (2) of "significant" from Merriam's dictionary, it requires that what is "significant" for you ALSO be something that is significant for other people. If your essay doesn't show how your "experience" is both significant to you AND to other people (like the essay readers), then it will be considered a poor essay.

The confirmation of this is that they also offer you the alternative of discussing an "ethical question." Ethical questions always involves how you interact with others and, therefore, are never important only for you. If you don't show how your essay is important to the world and has meaning for other people as well as you, then you will be considered to have offered a poor essay.

At the end of your essay story, you say that this was "the most accomplished train ride ever." That line proves that this is not a good topic. They asked for a "significant" experience, yet train rides are, by their nature, insignificant. The only significant thing someone can do on a train ride is to save another person's life (achievement); decide to stop an assault (risk); even at though you could get hurt yourself (ethical dilemma).

If you really must use this topic, start with the sentence, "Although one train rarely changes the direction of a person's life and one's effects on the lives of others, my experience shows that a train ride can have unforeseen and profound lifelong significance." Start by explaining who you were before the train ride. End by explaining who you were and how you had changed after the train ride. If your narrative then proves that you traveled more than the distance between a few train stops (that you became more mature and adopted new goals for your life that are significant for you and others), then you will have written a college essay exam.

Consider this, however: The people reading your essay will expect you to have given some serious thought to this question and will expect you to focus on one of the most significant challenges and revelations of your entire life. If you think for half an hour more about the "significant achievements" "risks" and "ethical dilemmas" you have encountered and overcome, you will realize that this one you have chosen to focus on really isn't that significant in comparison to many others. If you need help, ask your friends or family members what achievements you have accomplished or choices you have made that have most impressed them and why.

On a different question about your essay, consider this: You confessed in your essay that you never tried to apply the scientific method until you were in your last year of high school. Other students will tell stories that say they have been perfecting the use of logic and empirical study since grade school. If you were a college admissions officer, which of these students would you think was better prepared for college work? A teenager who has 12 months experience believing in science or someone who has seven years experience applying the scientific method?

Also, as you edit your eventual essay, try this: Remove every single word you can remove without changing the meaning of your text. For example, you said,

"One seemingly normal day in junior year, my friend and I were taking a train together home from school."

"in junior year is irrelevant" is irrelevant to proving that this experience was significant, except to prove that you are "slower" than the students with whom you are competing for a space in the freshman class. You should only say you are "slower" in a college entry essay if you believe this will be an asset in gaining admission to college. If this is the gist and thrust of your essay, then you've chosen a counterproductive and self-defeating essay topic.

"were taking a train together is redundant, because it is obvious that you were "together," if you are friends and you both took the same train. You already said "and I" which has the same meaning as "together."

You said,

"As the train jerked to a sudden stop, I tripped and fell forward to the train door that supposedly separated us from the next train car- and something struck me."

It's obvious that the stop was "sudden" because the train "jerked" and you "tripped," so remove the word "sudden," because it doesn't add anything.

You said, "train door that separated us from the next train car." It's obvious that it's a "train" door because you're on a train. Instead, "We fell forward to the door..." or "from the next car."

You said,

"I immediately noticed that it wasn't my backpack that was being reflected through the window..."

How about, "It wasn't my backpack reflected there, since mine was of a different size and color." That sentence provides the same relevant information with 15 words, instead of 22. If you have seven words to waste, it's because you have chosen a topic that's not important enough.

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