What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato? A mother's battle with the college essay

My son and I knew these admission essays were important. But the advice on the bookstore shelves overwhelmed us. For students hoping to meet the last few application deadlines: Forget high-priced college consultants and turn instead to the real experts, the essayists themselves.

AP Photo/Oberlin College, Gary Cohen
Oberlin College admissions staff read applications. With college application deadlines looming, the pressure is on among high school seniors to write the perfect essay.

"Mom, don’t worry, I have six months to work on this," my 17-year-old son said last June as he left for his summer job.

"But Plato and Kierkegaard require more time," I yelled, as the screen door slammed behind him.

By September, I had surrendered my dining room table to a printer, a laptop, and piles of half-written college admission essays – not just any essay, but the dreaded supplemental essay.

The Common Application, an application widely accepted by colleges and universities, requires students to write one essay on an extracurricular activity and a longer personal essay.

But many schools require more: a supplemental essay, or two, or three. And it is these additional essays that propel the already-busy high school senior into a Montaigne-like marathon, writing essays on life, love, and the pursuit of diversity.

I did the math. If my son applied to 10 schools, he could conceivably be writing an additional 30 essays. And this, in addition to violin, tae kwon do, AP courses, and volunteering for the school’s animal humane society.

I trembled as I read one of the questions:

"'We might say that we were looking for global schemas, symmetries, universal and unchanging laws – and what we have discovered is the mutable, the ephemeral, the complex.' Support or challenge Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine’s assertion."

I called a few friends to see who was up to date on their Prigogine. But a month before the deadline, harried and stressed, they were too busy proofreading, researching, and hiring consultants to worry about global schemas.

"It’s ridiculous. Who comes up with these questions anyway?" asked a mother, who was seen around town carrying a dog-eared copy of "College Essays that Made a Difference," complete with an index of where the students had been accepted.

Others were more laid back, "Essays? I don’t even think he has started yet," said a friend. "Will you ask him how they are going?" she pleaded.

My son and I knew these essays were important. The bookstore’s endless shelves of essay-writing advice made that clear. We knew they could be the deciding factor between students with similar scores and grades.

We studied a few of the books. To my dismay, it made matters worse; we felt overwhelmed by the advice. Reflective or action-oriented? Funny or serious?

At the University of Chicago, applicants were asked to choose one question from a list of six options. Here is a partial list: 

1. "What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?"

2. "Don’t write about reverse psychology."

3. "….Between living and dreaming there is a third thing. Guess it."

For advice, I called the smartest person I know. I asked him how he felt about this year’s crop of questions. 

"Most of these questions strike me as vague and unanswerable, except by a philosopher-historian-political scientist-man-of-letters who has attained eminence in several different disciplines and shows a genius’s ability to synthesize his or her wisdom on almost any subject in the universe," he said.

Whew! How would today’s students, accustomed to year-round sports and loads of extra curriculars deal with Seneca? Would this year’s seniors be up to the task?

I wanted to help my son without actually doing any of the writing. Teaching someone how to write is a torturous business. Besides, I felt more and more compelled to take the advice of a close friend: Avoid all schools with supplemental essays.

Instead, I hired an unpaid consultant who would guarantee complete success: Project Gutenberg, an online database of free eBooks in the public domain. I went to the website’s search box, typed in the names of essayists like William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, printed out their advice, and left copies for my son to read. I promised myself if my son got into the college of his choice then I would volunteer to help the Gutenberg Project, and proofread a page a day, as the site requested.

So for students hoping to meet the last few deadline dates, Happy New Year! Forget the high-priced college consultants and turn instead to the real experts. Here is a sampling:

Ben Jonson: "For a man to write well, there are required three necessaries – to read the best authors, observe the best speakers, and much exercise of his own style."

James Boswell: "When a man writes from his own mind, he writes very rapidly. The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book."

William Hazlitt: "The proper force of words lies not in the words themselves, but in their application. A word may be a fine-sounding word, of an unusual length, and very imposing from its learning and novelty, and yet in the connection in which it is introduced may be quite pointless and irrelevant. It is not pomp or pretension, but the adaptation of the expression to the idea, that clenches a writer’s meaning."

Janine Wood is a freelance writer.

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