The College Essay I Never Wrote by Director of College Counseling Kate Ramsdell
When I applied to college in fall 1992, I had one rather unhelpful visit with my high school guidance counselor, four college visits, two SAT scores and one typewriter-produced college application under my belt. Actually, make that two. I screwed up on the first one, and my mother told me I could not submit an application with Wite-Out on it. So, I had to start over. Shockingly, at least to me, it has been almost 25 years since I have written a college essay as I help this year’s Class I students put the finishing touches on theirs.
During one college meeting this summer, as a student was sharing a story about his semester away, I interjected enthusiastically, “That would make a great college essay!” His quick, good-humored retort followed, “Wow, is that how you think about everything -- as a college essay? I am so sorry about that.” I tried to disabuse him of the notion that I see life through the lens of a college essay writing exercise. I knew this was a lie and quickly admitted that, yes, I often hear people’s stories and think exactly what I had just blurted out.
As I took off on a JetBlue flight to Richmond in mid-August to do a bunch of college visits, I flipped through the TV offerings (without headphones, so no sound). I landed on ESPN U, where a heated battle for first place was unfolding on the Bassmaster High School Fishing Championship. Never having fished for sport, and always having been one of those people who wondered who the heck watches fishing on television – for me, a little like watching golf: paint drying, I was nevertheless sucked into the narrative unfolding in front of me, a silent film about pairs of young men finding patience and a passion on the back waters of Louisiana (the leaders all seemed to come from Louisiana high schools).
Were they friends? Brothers? Did their parents fish? How did they learn to fish? Did they love it? Does competition take the fun out of it? Would they go to college? Do colleges have fishing teams? How hard is it to catch 66 pounds of fish in five days?
Then, I thought, I bet you could write a really cool college essay about competitive bass fishing. Oh no. No! Had my life become so narrowly focused that I really did see everything as a college essay? My counselee was right. I needed to get a life.
I took a step back and gave myself a bit of a break. I love good storytelling. For me, life is filled with stories worth sharing, and working with kids in the college process allows me to hear so many stories. Even though the exercise of producing a college essay can feel utterly pressure-filled and excruciating for kids (and their parents – let’s be honest), I continue to think about all of the things I could have written about 25 years ago that, at the time, didn’t seem important enough.
On that same trip, while eating dinner out alone near the University of Virginia, I struck up a conversation with a young server who spent the evening shucking oysters behind the bar. As we got talking, I asked where he’d grown up – Charlottesville – and soon he was sharing that he had left a local college, but wanted to go back eventually and earn a degree. In the meantime, he was working two jobs, including this one that paid him 10 cents for every oyster shucked. I asked a few more questions, and that led me to his soon-to-be college essay – his grandfather had owned a peanut factory, and so he spent summers in middle and high school working on the packing line alongside much older, often African-American men, most of whom were in their 60s, having spent close to a lifetime working there. He had never thought of this part of his life as a story worth telling. I convinced him otherwise. Trust me, I do this for a living, I quipped.
My own favorite could-have-been college essay is one about how, when I swam competitively, I spent many of my practices watching the tiles on the bottom of the pool slip past me as I rehearsed marching band music in my head. I’d “read” the music (I played trombone) and as I “heard” it, I would envision the movement sequences that our band director painstakingly rendered on graph paper. If you’ve been in a marching band, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, each person is assigned a numbered dot on a virtual football field, and on each page you find your dot. Then, you move according to the counts of the music from one spot to the next, making the cool shapes you see on the field at half time. During our swimming warm-ups, I’d walk myself through the routine step-by-step and note-by note. I may be wrong, there’s a bit of college essay gold in there. At the time it was just what I did every day.
It’s hard to tell good stories. Even harder is capturing oneself in 650 words. And then there is the real burden my seniors face – they have barely lived life! So often when I visit colleges I think, as I did again this August, I would be a much better college applicant at 40 than I was at 17. And yet, colleges don’t want 40-year-old voices in the stories they read. The 17-year old story is what they want to hear, and I hope we will always let them tell it.