Who is Watching? Everyone

I think of you high school seniors, all you once and future college applicants! You have long since endured the Make Way for Ducklings exercise that is the campus college tour, led by cheery chattering student guides. You have worked on, or are even now working on, those fearsome college essays. What can I DO? you must wonder. Write about overcoming adversity? Speak of an inspiring figure in my life? Or should I do an ‘I Used to Think But Now I See’ piece to show how I have changed? Could be a good way to spin that D I got in Tenth Grade History, come to think of it.

I picture you with such thoughts as you sit there, agonizing! I feel for you, walking through these fires! 

But now I must remind you of another whole section of your college application, largely invisible to you:

I speak of the college recommendation, written by two or three adults who have worked in a supervisory capacity over you.

I began writing college recommendations as a young teacher, when Richard Nixon was still shaking his angry jowls at a recalcitrant nation and I’m writing them still, as I find myself once again working with high school students – which is why I can say this with some certainty: Writing the letter of recommendation can be an easy, even pleasurable task for your ‘recommenders’ to take on, if, and perhaps only if, you have let your true self be known by them. Why? Because a recommendation shouldn’t be a list of glowing adjectives but rather a series of telling glimpses into the applicant’s true self. Let me give an example.

I recently spent an hour at a church rummage sale with a high school sophomore who is under my ‘care’. Though two long years will pass before I’ll be writing a letter for him, I note everything he says, even as I do with the other six young people I currently help supervise.

At this rummage sale, for a mere $5, you could take home whatever you could fit in the standard grocer’s brown paper bag.

I watched as this boy happily chose items not ynlu for himself but also for his brothers back home. Gym shorts, cool T-shirts, hoodies: all these went into his bag.

Then we climbed the stairs to the book-sale room where you could fill a bag for a mere $3.

Almost immediately, he spotted a gorgeously illustrated book called Egyptology.

“Oh no,!” he exclaimed. “There’s  a whole series that this book is part of and THIS is the only one I could never find!”

He had looked and looked for it, he said, and, finally despairing, ended up giving the whole collection away.

“And now you can have it,” I said.

“And now I can have it,” he repeated, looking down almost reverently at the volume as he placed it in his bag.

“Maybe there’s a message for me here,” he added.

“What would the message be, I wonder?”

“If you want something enough, you will find it? “ he tried. “If you love a thing, it will come to you? I don’t know, really…”

He didn’t know. Sometimes a person can’t know a thing like that right away. But I knew something I did not know before. I knew that I had just had a glimpse into his young soul. And don’t think I won’t remember his letting me have that glimpse.

So my real message to you, you high school seniors, both for now and for later?

Let yourselves be known. Open yourselves and speak your truth. We are all watching one another, and we all gain strength from what we see.

IMG_2410and here, right on Amazon is another book in the set, his for the asking and $15 plus shipping 


The Much Dreaded College Essay

What’s the most important task for you high school seniors hoping to get into college – after you earning the grades and doing OK on the SATs that is? The writing of a good essay, in which the scratchy voice of the 17-year-old comes through.

That phrase belongs to the Director of Admission at Yale who uttered it some ten years ago when my kid was looking at colleges.

What he meant, I believe, is that you should write the essay yourself. 

Don’t let your parents write it, much less some college “coach” your parents might have hired.

Don’t let them dream up your topic either. Dream up your own topic.

Also, try not to bore your reader to death by stringing together sentences that bore even you as you tap them out on your keyboard.

These readers are only human after all, and chances are they’re very weary given the number of folders they must go through in order to assemble this next college Class of 2016. I picture them with eye strain. I picture them with feet that have gone to sleep from curling one and then another under themselves as they try to get comfortable during these marathon reading sessions. They probably need more water than they’re drinking and their minds doubtless keep wandering toward thoughts of dinner.

Show them the courtesy of speaking to them in your own voice about something that interests you. Don’t try writing like a C.E.O or a department head at the Internal Revenue Service or some solemnly intoning guy in an infomercial for cholesterol medication. You’re a high school student! Relax and let yourself be what you are right now, even if your secret hope is to one day find fame and have paparazzi trailing you in pursuit of those stolen-moment candids of you sleeping with your mouth open or yelling at your dog.

I had the chance to read two great college essays in the last month. One has in it time travel and 16th century horses straining at their reins; the other, a peach tree, a bright blue door slapping open and Sunday dinner with Grandma.

They’re both terrific and they’re nothing like the college essay I once wrote telling how I routinely skipped meals and stayed up all night fashioning flash cards and making teensy notes on all my class notes.

This was when I applied Early Decision to that fine women’s college called Wellesley.

Six weeks later they flat-out rejected me.

Thus, when I applied to that other fine women’s college known as Smith I wrote a very different essay, telling what it was like to be charged with the protection and emotional well-being of half-dozen Seventh Graders at summer camp the year a bear with an eerie resemblance to Babe Ruth kept appearing at the clothesline behind the cabins to sniff at all our swimsuits.

Smith did accept me, welcomed me in September and got right to work teaching me that study is much more than rote memorization, that balance in life is crucial and that it’s pretty much never a good idea to skip a meal.

I still think I got into one college and not the other because I wrote that second essay with pleasure and fondness and even excitement. Therefore, young applicant, speak in your own voice about what has moved or surprised, delighted or terrified you, and let the chips fall where they may – as indeed they always do.

Therefore, young person, speak in your own voice about what has moved or surprised, delighted or terrified you, and let the chips fall where they may – as indeed they always do.