In my last post, I discussed what the college essay is all about (and not about). This time, we’re going to take a look at how a young man we’ll call Ben—who has since graduated from his dream college and is starting his career—made the most of my College Essay Yes-Yes’s in his own winning application.
An orange-striped polo shirt and a new pair of faded jeans stared me in the face as I looked in the mirror. I never knew a simple pair of clothes could cause such fear. I felt my heart pounding in my head as I thought about all the anxious moments I was about to encounter. As I buttoned the top of my shirt and zipped up my jeans, my hands shook and my fingers trembled. I felt the stitching of the shirt on my back and the fraying of the jeans on my legs. Everything had to be just right. Today would be my first day wearing a pair of jeans to school. I was in eighth grade.
Wearing jeans to school seems like the most natural thing a teenager can do. Most boys can wake up, put on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and walk out the door. Not me. My whole life I wore the same style Adidas sweatpants to school, always carefully tucking in a soft T-shirt with the tags removed. The familiar snug feeling of sweatpants tied tightly around my waist made me feel safe and secure. My friends often asked why I insisted on this strange habit. I always answered the same way: I wore clothes that felt most comfortable on my body.
I was born with Sensory Integration Disorder (SID), a neurological dysfunction that distorted how my nervous system processed and organized sensory information. I had particular trouble with noise, sensitivity to touch, and body awareness. Loud places like basketball games and playgrounds bothered me. Simple tasks like putting on a pair socks unnerved me. Wearing socks with seams felt like walking with sandpaper between my toes. I would rather walk around in shoes with no socks. Blue jeans? I hated the thought of wearing them. Without drawstrings to pull tightly, my body always thought they would fall off. Even if I wore a belt, I could not tolerate the insecurity. Wearing jeans not only represented physical discomfort, but change as well. I liked my routine of dressing in familiar sweats.
Yet, with each passing day of middle school, I thought more and more about the future. Could I really see myself as a 30-year-old man wearing a pair of baggy sweatpants? No. My girlfriend at the time giving me a little “hint” to wear jeans didn’t help my cause. Besides, who wants to live their entire life looking like Steve Urkel? The guy made me laugh, but I didn’t exactly consider him my role model. I knew the day would come when I would wear a pair of jeans to school, but it scared me to even think about it. Still, it was time to let go of what was comfortable, what felt right. Those few moments of terror when every student and staff member would stare at me (or so I thought) would seem like a speck of dust five years down the road. Then, I walked out my front door wearing a new pair of faded jeans.
That first time wearing blue jeans frightened me because it forced me out of my routine. I hated change and wearing jeans signified change in every sense of the word. I had never been more intimidated in my life. Yet, that day went by just like any other. No one laughed. No one stared. In fact, I received many compliments. I started that day anxious and afraid, but I walked out of school confident and proud.
As strange as it seems, wearing a pair of jeans to school helped me mature more than any other experience. I learned the benefits of change and the great opportunities that come each time I take on a challenge. Today, I can overcome pangs of anxiety in situations where I fear being laughed at or embarrassed. I embrace experiences such as addressing the Student Senate every Friday morning. Even being asked to sing Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ for a recent interview in front of classmates and teachers could not faze me. I now realize that when I live fearlessly, I live most fully.
That first day wearing jeans, I gained much more than I lost. Hesitation, doubt, and the fear of change slowly disappeared, replaced by calmness and confidence. I found something within me I never knew I had: inner-strength and self-assurance. By committing to trying new things, I learned to overcome both the physical discomfort and emotional stress of putting myself out on a ledge, not knowing where it leads. Wearing blue jeans jump-started a change in my life. It led to many other experiences that made me a stronger, better person. Taking a risk and being fearless in stressful situations is no longer a burden. Now, I welcome these challenges with pride, energy, and security. I have the self-belief to reveal my character. All thanks to a faded pair of denim.
How Can You Write a Successful Essay Like Ben Did?
1) Make It Personal
Remember when I said you should be able to leave your essay on a teacher’s or friend’s desk without your name–but write it in such a way that he or she can identify your voice?
Ben doesn’t hold back. He takes a risk by talking about a deeply personal topic, sensory integration disorder, and owns that story with candor and confidence.
An interesting tidbit about Ben: during high school, he was a highly ranked tennis player in his state. He had good grades and high test scores. He could have written an essay to “impress”– the A on the US History final project or the “big match” that qualified him for state finals. But he logged those accomplishments on the application form and chose the route of vulnerability for his essay. He made his writing the place to be painfully, and delightfully, human.
2) Make It Specific
Ben doesn’t chronicle his entire experience with sensory integration disorder. Instead, he narrows his topic down to one key event related to his challenges. However, the event Ben chooses is strategic, not arbitrary, as it signifies a turning point in his maturity and confidence. And guess what readers will remember after going through those thousands of essays? Yep. The faded pair of denim.
3) Make It Vivid
Numbers two and three are related. If you don’t narrow your topic (more on this in our next installment), you’ll have trouble incorporating details as you attempt to cover too much ground in 500 words. Because Ben chose the “jeans day” as the main focus, he can include a number of sensory gems:
“I felt the stitching of the shirt on my back and the fraying of the jeans on my legs.”
“The familiar snug feeling of sweatpants tied tightly around my waist made me feel safe and secure.”
“Wearing socks with seams felt like walking with sandpaper between my toes.”
“Those few moments of terror when every student and staff member would stare at me (or so I thought) would seem like a speck of dust five years down the road.”
“Even being asked to sing Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ for a recent interview in front of classmates and teachers could not faze me.”
4) Make It Narrative
He can tell a story, right? As I emphasized in the last post, the college app essay shouldn’t be a “three ways in which wearing blue jeans changed my life” format with a traditional thesis statement and topic sentences leading into body paragraphs arranged by main ideas.
This story has a beginning (anxiety about wearing jeans to school), middle (showing up in jeans) and end (learning and growing as a result of wearing them). The narrative structure serves to draw readers in because, well, everyone loves a good story.
5) Make It Natural
True, Ben is a good writer. He also wrote many, many drafts. But in the process of perfecting his essay, he never lost his sense of self: a seventeen-year-old boy. He refers to a television character from his childhood, Student Senate, and a middle-school girlfriend. He doesn’t load up the essay with flashy vocabulary or scholarly references. He comes across as a teenager presenting himself in the best way possible–“himself” being the key word.
Are there any literary flaws in the essay? Sure. It was written by a high-schooler. But, submitting a masterpiece worthy of The New Yorker could be unwelcome, if not suspect.
Be yourself. And do your best job doing it.
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland