What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?
What historical moment do you wish you could have witnessed?
What do you wish you were better at being or doing?
Why are you here and not somewhere else?
What is so odd about odd numbers?
Surprise! These questions aren’t for CIA recruitment, and they're not an online dating survey. The millions of American teenagers who have the distinct good fortune to be neck-deep in the college admissions process have had at least one, if not all, of these questions foisted upon them. You can tell a lot about a college based on what kinds of questions it asks. Some are clever, some are pithy, some forgo the question mark altogether and simply take you by the collar and demand information — “ Tell us something about yourself!!!”
Every college says the same thing about how the essay is where admissions officers get a chance to peek under applicants’ brain caps — to learn something of what makes us who we are. It’s an honorable system, as SAT scores of 2400 do not an interesting university make. However, there is in fact one large, looming problem: writing the darn thing.
There is certainly a unique sense of panic when you sit in front of a computer screen and wonder, “Who exactly am I?”
How are teenagers, who almost by definition don’t know who we are yet, expected to translate themselves into a seamless, poetic and original piece of writing? To top it all off, some genius decided to invent the “short take” genre; these nefarious devices force you to distill the pulp of your existence into 200 characters or less. Describing the essence of your life in a few sentences is not an easy task; brevity may be the soul of wit, but it sure as heck doesn’t make things much more straightforward.
There are libraries upon libraries dedicated to the art of writing the perfect college essay, but essay advice generally goes something like this: Don’t write about sports — it’s a cliché. Don’t write about travel — it’s a cliché. Community service, pets, natural disasters, death, celebrity role models — clichés. Other gems include “Show, don’t tell,” no to adverbs, yes to semicolons, no to famous quotes, yes to figurative language, no to rhetorical questions, and for the good of everyone involved, yes to spell-check.
The first essays you write are your babies; you tend them with the utmost care and attention, polishing a clause here and pruning an unneeded conjunction there. In the earliest essays, you come off as funny, intelligent, warm, and insightful. You think to yourself, “Pack my bags — I’m going to college!” Then you zip your application off to your dream school and wait a month and a half until Dec. 15, when early decisions are released — a Judgment Day around which my life now revolves.
After you send in your early essays, there’s a good two-week lag in which you feel much too pleased with yourself to even send a cursory glance the way of your safety schools . . . and then you find yourself where I did over Thanksgiving weekend, comprehending too late the sheer quantity of the essays you’ve been artfully avoiding thus far. So there I was, treading water in a veritable inundation of essays to write, realizing that it’s not so easy to spin a 500-word essay out of what could have been a grocery list plus a sentence or two.
With each additional essay I write, I become an increasingly unwilling author; every few sentences, I check my Google Doc word count, slowly but surely inching my way to the magical minimum of each prompt. For the early essays, I had to spend days cutting my word count to the bone; now, adding a single letter feels like going to the dentist — I just want it to be done. Presently, the only way I can work is by confining myself to my room and attempting (unsuccessfully) to avoid Netflix binges at inopportune times, bewildered that yes, this is actually what my life is like right now.
The most amazing part is that even lying face down in a puddle of application materials, it still isn’t real for me. I keep forgetting that this process actually leads to somewhere tangible and that at the end of this year, I will leave my home, my friends, and my family to spend the next four years learning some stuff and meeting some people in a place currently unknown to me — what an idea!
At this stage of senior year, when my friends and I can all commiserate about stress-snacking and procrastination tactics, it all seems like a glorious yet all-too-distant light at the end of what’s been a long, long (you have no idea how long) tunnel.
In the meantime, I have a gallon-bag of pita chips next to me, a pot of green tea at my side, and a computer screen full of beautiful, brightly colored “INCOMPLETE” notices. Hopefully, I’ll be able to ride these essays into the sunset of university acceptance, so I might as well settle back and enjoy the journey . . . until Dec. 15, that is.
Emily Ge, a senior at Charles Wright Academy, lives in Gig Harbor. She is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.