or Dissecting a Successful College Application Essay
This week is the last of my series on the college application essay, and I’ve saved maybe the most useful post for the end: a dissection of a college application essay that was successful in gaining admission to a highly-ranked American university.
The writer’s name is Sasha Rivers, a sophomore at Emory University in Atlanta, the number 21 school in the country according to US News and World Reports Best College rankings, conducted this year. Sasha is in the graduating class of 2023, and Emory fielded 30,017 applications when she applied, and she was one of 4,682 high school seniors selected for admission — an acceptance rate of 15.59%, which classifies Emory as “Highly Selective.”
The “critique” focuses on the positive aspects of the essay and doesn’t quibble with things that could have been written better. To tell you the truth, I don’t see much to criticize here, anyway, but one method I’ve been trying to implement the past few years of my career when evaluating student writing is finding places to say, “This here is excellent. You need to do more of this…” instead of marking everything that falters in the piece. By telling the student they’ve done a certain thing well in a specific instance, the student will compare that success with other places in their writing and learn by their own examples. Plus, I like to watch baseball umpires who choose not to yell “BALL!” when a pitcher throws one out of the strike zone. I like the ones who are silent when a mistake happens, so we can quietly assume it was an errant pitch. When that same umpire speaks up after a successful pitch (STEEEEEEE-RIKE!) he is celebrating success; he’s saying “You see that there? That was successful. Throw more just like that and I’ll keep yelling praise for you.”
I’m that guy today.
First, I will show you Sasha’s essay in its entirety so you can read it from beginning to end. Beneath that, I will break the essay into excerpts and comment on what makes her essay so successful.
“Is your dad a lobsterman?” she asks, the words “Cape Cod Beach Lifeguard” blazing on her red hoodie like stolen valor – the stolen valor of my very own friends and younger brother who guard full-time each summer to keep our beaches safe.
“No ma’am,” I respond, “he’s a dentist.” I smile and ask cheerfully, “How many in your party?”
Her smile droops and her eyes say “I didn’t drive 200 miles to be sat by some perio-princess dressed in Armani Exchange! I could have stayed in Scarsdale for that!”
I am standing behind my podium, poised and ready. This is not the podium where I received the Harvard book prize as a junior, nor is it the podium where I will address my fellow seniors at commencement. This is the podium where I really shine: the host stand at the tavern where I work. I’ve had this job since the summer of my freshman year; I know the ins and outs of the restaurant industry. I love my job, my coworkers, and the free food; but the inauthentic, ubiquitous tourists, who somehow are always questioning my authenticity are something I could do without. At work, our patrons expect me to be local color. I am local color – just not the right hue, I guess.
When you look at me on paper, I’m sure I resemble the throngs of upper middle class white kids from Massachusetts. I have happily married parents, a big house, etc., but that’s exactly what sets me apart from my cohorts on Cape Cod. My townie friends live in rental houses in the off-season, and camp in Grandma’s backyard all summer to save money; they learned to tie nets and descale fish before they could read. My prep school friends are the descendants of Boston Brahmins whose parents never seem to work but who ooze money and sailboat-sized confidence. I’m probably the first Jew any of them know well. My first grade teacher told me I was the first Jew she’d ever met. When I told my mom, she made sure to bring in latkes for my class during Chanukah. My Sar-el trip to Israel last summer was the first place where I had Jewish friends. Even there, I caught myself over-explaining when I used a Yiddish word in conversation, because it was just what I was used to having to do. My mini-lessons in Jewish life worked with my friends back home though, who I am now proud to say not only love smoked fish for breakfast, but also wish me happy new year every September as well as January first.
People who haven’t lived on Cape don’t understand what it’s actually like: everybody here knows someone who’s overdosed on opioids, my hometown of Chatham (summer playground of the preppy and famous) is home to an elementary school so far below the poverty line that all of its students qualify for free lunch, and in the winters here, it doesn’t get too cold, but you can go weeks without seeing the sun. It’s hard to articulate, but I’m not just a local because I was born in Hyannis. I remember the autumn when lobster dipped to $2.99 a pound; the crustacean replaced our Thanksgiving turkey that year in solidarity with our community. I’m a local because sand between my toes (and in my car, and stuck in my rug) is just as familiar a feeling to me as laying in my own bed (which is also full of sand).
The tourists I seat for dinner are wrong to question my authenticity. I am a native Cape Codder. They expect me to be some peg-leg pirate with a “pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd” Downeaster accent, but I’m not. I’m much more likely to mimic my parents’ “cawfee” New Yorker accents, but I can still shuck oysters better than any restaurant you’ve eaten at – I never leave any bits of shell. I’ve mastered diving off the back of a boat but still have a hard time diving into a pool; the bottom always way too visible. Life on the Cape can be hard sometimes, but I’m proud to live here, proud of the skills it’s given me to blend in with any group, whether it be my salty, sea-faring friends, or my dad’s old-money fifth-generation Cape Codder patients, and to be just as comfortable addressing my high school’s donors as I am sunning on the bow of a Grady White.
This 744-word essay is holistically successful because it answers the one question that puzzles young writers of the college essay:
How do I squeeze everything about who I am, what I value, and what I have accomplished during my time in high school into one 650- to 750-word essay? And how do I do it without sounding like I’m full of myself?
Sasha responds to this puzzle with remarkable control of language that moves through different tones and content while maintaining a strong structural integrity, a continuous thematic thread, and communication of a remarkable amount of personal information indirectly. To me, Sasha’s essay is a beautiful representation of an autobiographical profile. Let’s look at how she does it, starting with the opening scene:
The essay opens with a scene that includes dialogue, one of the many effective ways to begin a narrative. The reader experiences a situation from the first words of the essay. Reading these first lines after reading the entire essay, you can see that the scene has a distinct purpose. It’s thematically representative of the kind of presumptuousness that bothers the writer, which she revisits consistently in the paragraphs that follow. This is what I mean about a “continuous thematic thread.”
The writer also reveals some important information through a single exchange of dialogue between two strangers: Sasha’s a lifeguard and a host at a restaurant. Sasha has a younger brother, her father is a dentist, and Sasha has good teeth. She’s also got a spark to her, a bit of an attitude. This isn’t someone afraid to be genuine and authentic.
Sasha is versed in rhetoric, too, with the successful use of anadiplosis (“stolen valor”). She’s not just showing off her AP-rich education here, though. The rhetorical device is important in this instance because the repetition of the phrase highlights the spurious nature of people bothersome to Sasha.
The alliterative use of the consonant ‘p’ here is brilliant, and I’m guessing, based on Sasha’s skill in this essay, that it was intentional. Again, alliteration isn’t just here for show. Sasha is utilizing the device to call attention to her “poise” and her “podium” (as we’ll see in the next excerpt). A writer can’t do this with any authenticity unless 1. it’s instinctual or 2. There’s careful consideration of rhythm and sound during revision, when real crafting of the essay happens.
Sasha’s use of the podium starts as an object in the setting and quickly becomes a vehicle to deliver her accomplishments indirectly. Not only has Sasha Rivers won awards, but she’s deeply respected by her peers. Sasha doesn’t have to utter a word about her accomplishments directly. The podium does it for her in one sentence.
And what’s also great about this is that she’s back at the tavern one sentence later to reveal parts of her character through a job she’s had since age 15: she takes her work seriously, gets along with (the right) people, and she knows how to have fun. Sasha loves the “free food,” and you can’t underestimate the power of a slight variety in tone. This variance moves the reader around psychically, something all really successful writers do for their readers.
The theme of authenticity is back, too, which links this section to the beginning, structurally. The “thread” is visible.
But the best part of the writing here, for me, is the voice — how a writer sounds on the page. Part of my Writing Standards measurements in assessing both personal essay and literary criticism is how comfortable the writing feels on the page. This isn’t easy for young writers to do. Most students see a huge difference between the voice of the personal essay and the voice while engaged in literary criticism, and to some extent they should consider the differences, but the gulf that seems to exist between the gray, lethargic voice of their critical essays and the bright, lively voice of their personal essays shows me that they don’t think a conversational voice is always appropriate. Sasha’s voice here is effortless and authentic, and it moves freely and confidently. My guess is that her literary and historical criticism don’t read much differently in terms of voice.
This section transitions from how tourists view her to how she appears at this moment to admissions personnel. The opening phrase acknowledges audience and purpose, and it brings me back to my junior year of high school and Jonathan Kessel’s English class at Connetquot High School, Bohemia, New York 11716 where he’d teach while throwing a tennis ball off the wall, and the bouncing ball mesmerized us. We’d follow the ball back and forth across the room, and when Kessel wanted to make a point, he’d catch the ball in his hands and hold it so the entire class would be looking at him while he made his ultimate point. I became a teacher because of him.
That’s what Sasha does here, whether she knows it or not. She creates a moment in the narrative when she’s being looked at, judged, and she parlays that scene into a reminder to the reader that they are doing the same exact thing. Pretty remarkable.
Sasha works in contrasts here, too. She knows she has things others don’t, and she’s grateful. Sasha’s also standing up for her peers who don’t have what she has. The reader knows that Sasha most likely possesses an empathetic nature due to the contrasts in life in Chatham.
The attention to specific detail is notable, too. I’ve talked about this in the past, but specificity is one key to success in the college application essay. There’s something specific and stimulating — and revelatory — about people who “learned to tie nets and descale fish before they could read.” I don’t know anyone like this, and I’ve lived for just about 50 years. I loved reading that line in the essay for that very reason.
Note also how the metaphor Sasha uses, “sailboat-sized confidence,” appropriately matches the scene. Too many writers throw metaphors into an essay without regard for how the objects used in the metaphor relate to the content and pattern of the essay. “It sounded good to me,” they’ll say. There’s nothing wrong with writing what sounds right to your ear. You should love what you write and be excited by it, but be ready to let go of what doesn’t work in the revision stage. For a Cape resident to use “sailboat” as a metaphor is just really smart. It’s the sign of a careful, considerate writer.
Despite attending an independent school, Sasha reminds her reader that, Yeah, I’m privileged to attend this school, but life was not without its challenges.
And let me just create a new paragraph here to say it’s an absolute joke that students born after September 11th have to go out of their way to remind anyone born before September 11th that life contained difficulty for them. Please.
Sasha also varies the emotional impact here. There’s a generosity in sharing the epicurean traditions of a family, and also something comical about this incident, but there’s also something subtly pointed about the tone here. This is where the writer comes from. This is where she gets her resilience and attitude.
Sasha transitions to an indirect reference to her commitment to service married with her devotion to her faith in three sentences. The hard “k” in “smoked fish for breakfast” doesn’t just showcase Sasha’s poetic sensibility in applying consonance to her sentences, but it highlights a rich, sensory detail that embodies the way her faith intermingles with her daily life, and it shows yet another example of her authenticity (the thread continues). Sasha isn’t revealing only her contribution to the global community; she’s revealing something important about her character, too.
Here’s authentic Chatham, Sasha says. She educates her reader, disabuses them of the view of Cape that I’ve always had: champagne flutes, polo shirts with the collars up, the Kennedys, a scarf or something. Note that the words “I” or “me” do not appear in this excerpt, yet we know exactly what this says about Sasha Rivers: she knows her community and there’s a sharpness to how aware she is of how life has befallen the less fortunate of her neighbors.
Sasha knows she’s heading toward the end of the essay, so the lobster from the first line is back and community links this graf to the previous one and the vivid imagery of the “sand between [her] toes” keeps the thread of authenticity flowing through the piece.
The piling up of “sand” here is another effective rhetorical devices and one I happen to use a lot. It’s called polysyndeton, and it’s especially useful for moments just like these: when you want to simulate a relentlessness. The sand is everywhere, and repeating the conjunction “and” intensifies its ubiquity for the reader.
Sasha’s range of tone, syntactic skill, and personal character crescendo in the last paragraph, as they should. The first sentence brings the reader right back to the podium at the tavern, where this essay began. It’s followed by maybe the strongest sentence in the essay, but only because of what she wrote before it. “I am a native Cape Codder,” a mere six words, might hit a reader in the same way Michael Douglas’ character, Andrew Shepherd, famously declares at the end of The American President, “My name is Andrew Shepherd and I am the President” (please go listen to this masterful piece of cinematic and fictional rhetoric). If Sasha’s six-word sentence appeared in the first line of the essay, the piece would have been on shaky ground right from the start. Here though? It’s masterfully placed because by now the reader knows exactly how to read it. Sasha’s given the reader the tonal blueprint to arrive at this sentence correctly.
The phonetic quotes mix a kind of acceptable mockery with playful humor. This is a witty student. And for the first time she brags, but it’s not about her awards or accomplishments. It’s about her ability to shuck oysters. In the next sentence she balances the bragging with vulnerability, but again, it’s nothing about her studies or how bad she feels for those less fortunate in her community. It’s about diving into a clean pool of water.
The last sentence is a flourish: a 64-word sentence that summarizes everything beautifully without sounding like a summary. Many of the skills Sasha has demonstrated in the essay come into play here: there are contrasts, there’s playful alliterative language, her father appears again as a dentist, and, oh, Sasha apparently was entrusted to represent her school while addressing donors. She makes this clear to her new school (which has an 8 BILLION dollar endowment, by the way), in six words.
Emory University, the number 21 school in the nation, is most definitely lucky to count Sasha Rivers among its students.
But besides all that, what can a student who is writing their college application essay learn from Sasha? I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ll go back to a previous point about how much information she was able to reveal indirectly through the dialogue exchange at the beginning of the essay. When you have written a draft of your essay, and you are ready for someone (me? I’d be honored…) to critique it, ask them to do the following:
Pretend you know nothing about me. List what you have learned about me, either directly or indirectly, by reading this essay.
Take the list from them and ask yourself:
Is this what I want college admissions personnel to know about my values, character, awards, and accomplishments?
If we were to make the list for Sasha Rivers, the list would be lengthy, dynamic, and impressive.
Yours can do all this, too.
A special thank you to Sasha Rivers, who allowed me to write about her essay this week. I’m grateful to you, Sasha.