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Posts Tagged ‘Starting a Significant Experience Essay’

How To Write A 500 Word College Application Essay–An Exercise In Editing

In Common Application Essays, Essay on an Influence, Essay on Intellectual Development, Essay on What Matters to You, Harvard Application Essay, Princeton Application Essay, Stanford Supplement Essay, Yale Supplemental Essay on May 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm

One of the greatest challenges in writing an application essay is the length demanded by the Common App and most universities:  500 words  (or less).  For many applicants, this is akin to writing a perfect Italian sonnet about their lives–or boiling their lives down to a haiku.  But if your initial essay has “good bones,” meaning a good central narrative or description and good structure, you should be able to  pare down your language to come up with an excellent final draft.

The 500 word limit is not like a deadly force field, of course–your essay won’t be obliterated or cast aside if you are a few words over –but the fundamental rule is clear: the more words over the limit, the more you risk irritating the reader and the more they will expect from the essay.  As one app officer has said, it really “raises the bar” if the essay is too long, and the longer it is, the higher the leap, so to speak.

So don’t get hung up on every word as if there were only one possible version of your essay in the entire universe.  If you start your essays early, you will have plenty of time to play with them.  Once you have a good draft, good editing is paramount.  You want to create clean sentences, use the most precise vocabulary possible and cut out repetition.  One well-chose word can replace a phrase or even a sentence.

To show you what I mean, I will edit and vastly cut down the much longer essay we discussed in my last post.  It will be helpful to see the last post and read the essay before continuing.

To continue,  I will take that (very) long and brilliant essay linked and discussed in the last post and distill from it a small excerpt; this excerpt will be a mini-version of the original, but will still be hundreds of words too long (874 words, to be precise) so I will edit it again, showing my editing marks, and then end with a third version of 500 words.  This final essay could be used equally as well for an intellectual experience essay or a personal influence essay.

Tearing down and rebuilding a long and brilliant essay by a real pro may seem like a kind of party trick, but in reality this is what good editors do all the time for journalists,  essayists and novelists.

Version 1, below, is an excerpt from the original, longer essay; version 2 is the edited example of that excerpt; and version 3 is the result, in which the excerpt has been editing down to become a 500 word application essay.

Version 1

An excerpt from a much longer essay on the comic book superhero

This is a cut-down version of the original,  with no other editing changes.

When I was a boy, I had a religious-school teacher named Mr. Spector, whose job was to confront us with the peril we presented to ourselves. Jewish Ethics was the name of the class. We must have been eight or nine.

Mr. Spector used a workbook to guide the discussion; every Sunday, we began by reading a kind of modern parable or cautionary tale, and then contended with a series of imponderable questions. One day, for example, we discussed the temptations of shoplifting; another class was devoted to all the harm to oneself and to others that could be caused by the telling of lies. Mr. Spector was a gently acerbic young man with a black beard and black Roentgen-ray eyes. He seemed to take our moral failings for granted and, perhaps as a result, favored lively argument over reproach or condemnation. I enjoyed our discussions, while remaining perfectly aloof at my core from the issues they raised. I was, at the time, an awful liar, and quite a few times had stolen chewing gum and baseball cards from the neighborhood Wawa. None of that seemed to have anything to do with Mr. Spector or the cases we studied in Jewish Ethics. All nine-year-olds are sophists and hypocrites; I found it no more difficult than any other kid to withhold my own conduct from consideration in passing measured judgment on the human race.

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that he tied a red towel around his neck, climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was known to have been such a boy, Mr. Spector informed us—at least one verifiable boy, so enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that what was found between the covers of a comic book was fantasy, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies, the consumption of which failed to prepare you for what lay outside those covers. Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you, and thus, by implication, your wishes, your dreams and longings, everything you carried around inside your head that only you and Superman and Elliot S! Maggin (exclamation point and all, the principal Superman writer circa 1971) could understand—all these would betray you, too. There were ancillary arguments to be made as well, about the culpability of those who produced such fare, sold it to minors, or permitted their children to bring it into the house.

These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality—point granted—but, on the other hand, if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). Rather, what struck me, with the force of a blow, was recognition, a profound moral recognition of the implicit, indeed the secret, premise of the behavior of the boy on the roof. For that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comic books, which after all were only bundles of paper, staples, and ink, and couldn’t hurt anybody. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.

One knew, of course, that it was not the red cape any more than it was the boots, the tights, the trunks, or the trademark “S” that gave Superman the ability to fly. That ability derived from the effects of the rays of our yellow sun on Superman’s alien anatomy, which had evolved under the red sun of Krypton. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in the red sun of your heart.

I, too, had climbed to a dangerous height, with my face to the breeze, and felt magically alone of my kind. I had imagined the streak of my passage like a red-and-blue smear on the windowpane of vision. I had been Batman, too, and the Mighty Thor. I had stood cloaked in the existential agonies of the Vision, son of a robot and grandson of a lord of the ants. A few years after that Sunday in Mr. Spector’s class, at the pinnacle of my career as a hero of the imagination, I briefly transformed myself (more about this later) into a superpowered warrior-knight known as Aztec. And all that I needed to effect the change was to fasten a terry-cloth beach towel around my neck.

It was not about escape, I wanted to tell Mr. Spector, thus unwittingly plagiarizing in advance the well-known formula of a (fictitious) pioneer and theorist of superhero comics, Sam Clay. It was about transformation.

Version 2

An Edited Version–You can see the version above under the editing marks, and you can see the 500-word version emerging.  

When I was a boy, I had a religious-school teacher named Mr. Spector, whose job was to confront us with the peril we presented to ourselves. Jewish Ethics was the name of the class. We must have been eight or nine.

Mr. Spector used a workbook to guide the discussion; every Sunday, we began by reading a kind of modern parable or cautionary tale, and then contended with a series of imponderable questions. One day, for example, we discussed the temptations of shoplifting; another class was devoted to all the harm to oneself and to others that could be caused by of the telling of lies lying. Mr. Spector was a gently acerbic young man with a black beard and black Roentgen-ray eyes. He seemed to take our took our moral failings for grantedand, perhaps as a result, favored favoring lively argument over reproach or condemnation. I enjoyed our discussions, while remaining perfectly aloof at my core from the issues they raised. though I was, at the time, an awful liar, and quite a few times had stolen chewing gum and baseball cards. from the neighborhood Wawa. None of that seemed to have anything to do with Mr. Spector or the cases we studied in Jewish Ethicsfor all nine-year-olds are sophists and hypocrites; I found it no more difficult than any other kid to withhold my own conduct from consideration in passing measured judgment on the human race.

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly as it was experienced in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a fine story about a boy who loved Superman so much that, he tied  with a red towel around his neck, he climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was known to have been   —at least one verifiable such a boy,boy, Mr. Spector informed usso enraptured and so betrayed by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that what was found between the covers of a comic books was were fantasies, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies., the consumption of which failed to prepare you for what lay outside those covers. Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you, and thus, by implication, your wishes, and your dreams and longings, everything you carried around inside your head that only you and Superman and Elliot S! Maggin (exclamation point and all, the principal Superman writer circa 1971) could understand—all these would betray you, too. There were ancillary arguments to be made as well, about the culpability of those who produced such fare, sold it to minors, or permitted their children to bring it into the house. These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality—point granted—but, on the other hand, if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). Rather, What struck me, with the force of a blow, was recognition, a profound moral recognition of the implicit, indeed the secret, premise of the behavior of the boy on the roof:  . For that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comics books, which after all were only bundles of paper, staples, and ink, and couldn’t hurt anybody. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.

One knew, Of course, that it was not the red cape any more than it was the boots, or the tights  the trunks, or the trademark “S” that gave allowed Superman the ability to fly. That ability derived from the effects of the rays of our yellow sun on Superman’s alien anatomy, which had evolved under the red sun of Krypton. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in the red sun of your heart. I, too, had climbed to a dangerous height, with my face to the breeze, and felt magically alone of my kind. I had imagined the streak of my passage, like a red-and-blue smear on the windowpane of vision. I had been Batman, too, and the Mighty ThorI had stood cloaked in the existential agonies of the Vision, son of a robot and grandson of a lord of the ants. A few years after that Sunday in Mr. Spector’s class, at the pinnacle of my career as a hero of the imagination, I briefly transformed myself (more about this later) into a superpowered warrior-knight known as Aztec. And all that I needed to effect the change was to fasten a terry-cloth beach towel around my neck.  It was not about escape, I wanted to tell Mr. Spector, thus unwittingly plagiarizing in advance the well-known formula of a (fictitious) pioneer and theorist of superhero comics, Sam Clay. It was about transformation through imagination.

Version 3:  A 500-Word Intellectual Experience or Personal Influence essay.

When I was a boy, I had a religious-school teacher named Mr. Spector, whose job was to confront us with the peril we presented to ourselves. Jewish Ethics was the name of the class. We must have been eight or nine.

Mr. Spector used a workbook to guide the discussion; every Sunday, we read a kind of modern parable and then contended with a series of imponderable questions. One day, for example, we discussed the temptations of shoplifting; another class was devoted to all the harm of lying. Mr. Spector took our moral failings for granted, favoring lively argument over condemnation. I enjoyed our discussions, though I was, at the time, an awful liar, and had stolen chewing gum and baseball cards. None of that seemed to have anything to do with the cases we studied in Jewish Ethics, for all nine-year-olds are sophists.

The one time I felt my soul to be in danger was the Sunday Mr. Spector raised the ethical problem of escapism, particularly in the form of comic books. That day, we started off with a story about a boy who loved Superman so much that, with a red towel around his neck, he climbed up to the roof of his house, and, with a cry of “Up, up, and away,” leaped to his death. There was such a boy, Mr. Spector informed usso enraptured by the false dream of Superman that it killed him.

The explicit lesson of the story was that comic books were fantasies, and “fantasy” meant pretty lies.  Fantasy rendered you unfit to face “reality” and its hard pavement. Fantasy betrayed you  and your dreams. These arguments were mostly lost on me, a boy who consumed a dozen comic books a week, all of them cheerfully provided to him by his (apparently iniquitous) father. Sure, I might not be prepared for reality——but if I ever found myself in the Bottle City of Kandor, under the bell jar in the Fortress of Solitude, I would know not to confuse Superman’s Kryptonian double (Van-Zee) with Clark Kent’s (Vol-Don). What struck me was a profound recognition of the implicit premise of  the boy on the roof:   that fool of a boy had not been doomed by the deceitful power of comics which after all were only paper, staples, and ink. That boy had been killed by the irresistible syllogism of Superman’s cape.

Of course, it was not the red cape any more than the boots or the tights  that allowed Superman to fly. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in your heart. I, too, had climbed to a dangerous height, and felt magically alone. I had imagined the streak of my passage, a red-and-blue smear on the windowpane of vision. I had been Batman, too. And all that I needed to effect the change was to fasten a terry-cloth beach towel around my neck.  It was not about escape, I wanted to tell Mr. Spector: it was about personal transformation through imagination.

The Significant Experience Essay: More Ideas

In Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, First Person Application Essay, personal statement, Significant Experience Essay on July 12, 2011 at 7:47 pm

In my last post, I discussed what is know as The Significant Experience Essay, which appeared, among other places, in Prompt 1 of the Common Application Personal Statement for 2011-2012. Possibly you’ve done the prewriting exercise I recommended in the last post, and you may even now have an essay in hand and are looking for further assistance. I do provide proofreading and editing services through Mr. B’s Flying Essay Service (rush jobs) and Wordguild Writing Services, both remotely (via e-mail) and in person within a limited geographical area. See the About section of this blog site for more information on those services.  In this post I will discuss how to continue developing ideas for this Significant Experience Essay and will suggest a couple of places to look for examples of Significant Experience essays or descriptions.

In this post, I will offer some suggestions for those who may want to write about a significant personal experience  but have trouble coming up with much when asked to list their achievements, risks or ethical dilemmas. Refer to the last post for the details of this exercise.

I will restate the prompt and then examine each area it defines:

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

These three areas could, of course, be discussed in a single essay. Perhaps you did face an ethical dilemma, took a risk to deal with it and achieved something worthy as a result. This would be a nice trifecta.

On the other hand, you might have struggled to get more than a few things listed in the prewriting exercise (e.g, made soccer team, learned to swim butterfly, reached level 10 of Kill Corps, read the Grapes of Wrath despite myself). Perhaps feel like you’ve never experienced something like a real ethical dilemma. If so, this post is for you.

You may feel that your experiences are pretty limited, but by the age of four or five, have something to say about each of the topic areas raised by this prompt. By the time you’ve even reached kindergarten, you’ve already had the important human experiences: you’ve had to decide whether to tell a lie or not (ethics), conquered many challenges (Learning how to tie your shoes and to float in a pool are both pretty big achievements) and taken many risks.

So start by considering yourself: what things in your life make up your strongest memories. What matters to you is what matters here.

For you, reading the novel Grapes of Wrath when your Junior English teacher inflicted it on you might be a great accomplishment. But surely, you say, this is not worthy of an essay.

Why not? Other writers have, in recent years, produced books about reading the French author Marcel Proust and the the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. You don’t even have to have read Proust or Tolstoy to enjoy these books (Find How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton, and Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, by Nina Sankovitch, for examples of books about reading specific books).

But is this not an essay about books, then, you ask?  Of course it is, which makes it also suitable for something like the Harvard Supplemental Essay for 2011-2012, which asked for an essay about books, as did the Stanford 2011-2012 application.   Look for a post soon which examines how many different prompts overlap or can be addressed by the same essay–this is something you should note if you are applying to more than a few colleges.  One essay may be used to address several different prompts for different college applications, with little or no tinkering.  Of course, you will probably need several very different essays to start with–you should never turn in two essays on the same trip or the same readings, for example.

To continue with the Significant Experience essay prompt, risk topic:  perhaps you feel that you haven’t taken any real risks. The issue in this topic is defining what a risk is. Most people immediately think of physical risk, but psychological risks are everywhere, as you know if you’ve been turned down when you asked someone to a dance or you flubbed a line of a play in front of an audience. And any physically risky activity carries with it a psychological risk as well as the obvious chance of physical injury. Have you ever dropped an easy pass that would have won the game for your team and then had to deal with the disappointment–or anger–of teammates or coaches? Talk about a risk to your ego. In fact, your response to a defeat or an error you made when you took a risk is a good area for you to explore. Triumph is great, but tumbling into the pit of failure and climbing out again can be even more interesting and revealing in a college application essay.  Risk is everywhere.  Use it.

Another topic area is the ethical dilemma.  It should be relatively easy to come up with an experience for this one–ethical dilemmas present themselves every day. Ethics is a field of philosophy, but it is also a practical activity engaged in by every human living in a community. When have you had to decide between something you were taught–or felt instinctively–to be right or wrong? Small children know about this and make these decisions every time they are asked who made the mess or who broke the glass or who took the cookie. Not to mention the decisions students make about whether to study hard or to cheat on a test or assignment.

The trick in an essay on ethics is to discuss the matter with a sense of perspective and, hopefully, even humor. You may have chosen to do something unethical and then had to rectify it, which adds an element of drama to your narrative but which also adds an element of risk. You want to show, ultimately, that you are ethical. You also want to avoid appearing too uptight or self-righteous. Keep that in mind if you decide to write to this topic. A serious ethical breach may not be a wise topic here, unless you can show how you’ve changed.

Take some time to doodle on a piece of paper now if you were unable to work with the three column exercise in the last blog post and see what comes to mind when you explore your memories of risks, achievements and ethical dilemmas.