• How to Write a College Essay:

    The “Show and Reflect” Personal Statement


    Advice from an Admissions Officer





    How to Write a College Essay:

    The “Show and Reflect” Personal Statement


    Contents written or compiled by

    Mr. Doherty






    Advice from an Admissions Officer....................................................................................2


    This Year’s Prompts from the University of California System..........................................3


    Sample Structures, with Examples

                The Show and Reflect Essay....................................................................................4

                The Show and Show and Reflect Essay (2 moments in parallel structure).............4

                “Look Again”: example of a Show and Reflect Essay............................................5

                Thesis-Extreme Example-Personal Examples-Tie Images Together-Essay............6


    How I Will Grade This: Personal Statement Score Sheet...................................................7



                7 Whys and a Connected Thought...........................................................................8

                6 Steps to Getting Deep (and One to Thinking Sideways)......................................9


    Reading Activity: Noticing Structure...............................................................................11


    David Letterman’s Top Ten Bad Titles for a College Essay.............................................11


    Showing Responsibility, Niceness, and Intelligence.........................................................12


    How to Introduce Characters like F. Scott Fitzgerald........................................................14


    Worksheet: Tone, Trimming Fat, Active Voice...............................................................15


    “A Dynamic Figure”: A Sample Essay in a Much Different Style...................................16


    “In the Mist of Choosing Colleges”: College Essay Bloopers.........................................17


    “College Essay”: A Mock College Essay by Christopher Buckley..................................18


    Adult Feedback Sheet (to Detach and Use).......................................................................19

    Advice from an Admissions Officer


    • Sometimes it seems that there are only four types of essays: the “class president” essay, the “I lost-but-learned” sports essay, the “I-went-to-Europe-and-learned-how-complex-the-world-is” essay, and the good old “being-yearbook-editor-sure-is-hard-work” essay. When I read one of those, it takes amazing willpower to get to the third paragraph.


    • I wish students would realize that when they write they should have something to say. They should try to present their values and priorities by writing on a subject that really means something to them. 


    • I want to see what makes someone tick.


    • Being off-beat or daring is usually a plus, as long as the student stays in control of his writing. The essays which are most effective seize a topic with confidence and imagination.


    • I like when a student brings a sense of style to a piece, as a good essayist or editorial writer would do. I’ve always advocated reading the essays of E.B.White as a means of preparing for writing the essay. 


    • I urge students to write as they would a diary or letter to a friend. When you write a letter, you may ramble, but when you’re finished your letter sounds like something you would really say.


    • I’m disappointed when students don’t take advantage of the only place in the application that allows them to express their individuality.


    • I always enjoy essays where the author realizes that he’s writing for an audience of real human beings.


    • I like an applicant who demonstrates the ability to look at himself from the outside.


    • I am less interested in hearing what a student has done than I am in hearing why he does what he does.


    • What works the best? Honesty, brevity, risk-taking, self-revelation, imaginativeness, and fine writing.


    • If a student reads his application before mailing it and can say ‘this sounds like me,’ then he’s probably written the best essay possible. 


    This Year’s Prompts from the University of California System and Common App


    UC Prompts: https://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/how-to-apply/applying-as-a-freshman/personal-insight-questions.html

    Common App Prompts: https://www.commonapp.org/blog/2019-2020-common-app-essay-prompts


    Show and Reflect Essay (a.k.a. Personal Statement, or College Essay)

    Sample Structures


    Overview: You may use any structure you want. But you must plan it—and chart it out for me to see. Here are three potential blueprints.


    The Show and Reflect Essay                                          


    Part                        Function                                               Specifically I Will Use:


    1              Show moment.                                     Standing on cliff. The tingle in my knees, smell of       

    Get to climax.                                       the air, light on the water, trash in the weeds, etc.

    Then jumping.


    2                              Reflection: ask and answer               Why I do this? Because fear is exciting.

                                    why I do or value this.                        But why does fear excite? Not just because of the

    Challenge that answer and go          rush but because I must pass through it to get what I

    deeper; repeat, until the answer        want. It’s the thrill of literally pushing myself.  

    truly satisfies.                                      Acceleration into my own future; my foot on time’s

    gas pedal. But towards where? Each time I rise out

    of the water, am I only climbing the same slope? No,

    because now I am bound to my friends here, and to

    those who have jumped off this cliff in the past. The overcoming of fear makes one part of a club. It connects me to humans and nature. What is

    the “connected” feeling? Etc.                                          


    3                              Return to showing,                              I hit the water, a shock of cold and foot-ache, go

    concluding moment with                   deeper until crushed and weighless, look up and see

    poetic/symbolic image.                      the light that pulls me upwards.




    The Show and Show and Reflect Essay (2 Moments, Parallel Structure)                                           


    Part                        Function                                               Specifically I Will Use:


    1             Show moment. Get to climax          Standing on cliff, etc. ...Jumping.


    2                              Part of reflection on Moment 1        Why do I do this? Because fear is exciting ... my foot

    End with challenge/question.            is on time’s gas pedal. But towards where?


    3                              Show parallel moment – in a            Standing in Nursing Home room doorway.
    parallel way, so that comparison     Entering feels like stepping off a cliff

                                    is implied or alluded to briefly. 


    4                              Reflection: on Moment 2                 Passing through fear makes me feel connected to       
    and Moment 1                                     humans and nature, etc. 


    5                              Finish Showing Both Moments,        I hit the water, go under, am crushed but squeezed .

    concluding with poetic/symbolic      towards the light. ... I greet my grandfather, whose

                                    imagery                                                whose pain shoves me deep into myself, but then I’m

    floating towards him, bound with my history and

    with humanity by the rushing river of my own blood.



    Here’s an example of a Show and Reflect Essay in which the showing and reflection

     are shuffled together a lot – but both are very strong. 


    Look Again


                A woman sits on a sidewalk in San Francisco selling peacock feathers. Her stringy gray hair, illuminated by the sun, spreads out around her shoulders. She mumbles to the strangers passing by. The woman looks like a peacock herself, squatting proudly amid her ruffled train. Impulsively, I cross the street and ask her if I can take a picture. 


    I am surprised. “Why not?”

                She explains to me, sincerely, “I don’t want to be passed around a coffee table as ‘the poor homeless woman.’ This may be just a picture to you, but it’s my life.” Her eyes are focused intently on me. Even the turquoise eye shapes on the peacock feathers pay close attention; I feel as if I am before an audience of judges. Staring back stubbornly in my desire for the picture, I try to explain that showing her as a poor woman was not my purpose. I thought it was a truly beautiful picture. She turns away from me. 

                The words of the peacock woman raise questions in my mind. Why did I want her picture? What was my purpose in taking it? Slowly, I turn and walk into the crowds on Columbus Avenue. My days in the city had made me feel like a spontaneous young photographer dashing around busy streets capturing striking photos. But this woman demanded a reason, and now I demand one myself.

                As I continue walking, my lens once again seeks out the unnoticed beauty hiding in alleyways and on streets. People brush past me hurriedly, their eyes on the pavement in front of them. My eyes discover the shapes fire escapes make at the tops of buildings, the designs in the graffiti on the walls, the silhouette of two men arguing while chopping meat in the back of the butcher shop. The shutter on my camera clicks. But why?

                I pass a schoolyard where children are busy at play during a recess. Suddenly, a bell rings; the students line up reluctantly to climb the long metal stairs to their classrooms. The top is not visible from where I am, and I stand in awe, watching. It seems as if these children are not only ascending to elementary school but also toward a higher learning – the rest of their lives. An image is created. The exhilarating feeling of seeing something no one else has seen overcomes me. I realize that I have found my reason. It is this, this moment of heightened joy as I wait for a picture to compose itself before me. It is impossible to go out and look for a particular picture. The picture never comes. When I expect little and appreciate much, photographs form. 

                I click my shutter; the photograph is taken. This moment is the moment I feel my true self – independent and in control. This is why I photograph: to see, record, and then show these little pieces of time to the world; to force others to look in a new or different way; to dislodge the lens caps from others’ eyes. This is my challenge: to face the world through an open lens and capture it; to enable others to see the world as it truly is. 

                As my expedition down the street continues, the image of the peacock woman with her many eyes returns to my mind. I see her now not as a photograph but as a vision. There are many ways to see the world, and I will always remember to keep my own thousand eyes open, like a peacock spreading out its fan of eyes in the sun. 

                Do you see it? Do you see the man stacking bags of onions in a neat pile on the sidewalk? Do you see the way the light creeps up behind him, highlighting his shrunken cheeks and bent back? When he turns his head, do you see the hollowness of his eyes, the rugged strength of his hands? Do you see it? Look again.





    Alternative structure: The Thesis-Extreme Example-Personal Examples-Tie Images Together-Essay




    Thesis (can express as question)

    Why do people take for granted those they need the most? 

    Extreme Example, with sensory details. 


    Imagine a person dangling over the roof of a skyscraper, her potential rescuer straining above her, squeezing her sweaty hand to keep her from plummeting to the distant pavement—when suddenly she notices a family of doves flitting by, and, delighted, twists her body to get a better look. As she squeals with pleasure, the rescuer feels a popping in his elbow, and his own feet slip towards the edge. 

    Personal Example #1: Showing with reflection

         I have been both distracted rescuee and frustrated rescuer. Four years ago, in high school, driving three teammates home from a funeral for a fellow soccer player who had died in a car crash, I pushed my father’s turbo Mercedes as hard as it would go. I screeched around corners, not even noting my miscalculations until, rocketing through a stop sign and missing a turn, we crashed against a high curb, nearly rolling as the front right tire exploded. Up until it ended, I thought my friends had been impressed by the ride. Later one told me they had been wondering what the hell I’d been thinking.

         It has taken this long for me to comprehend what my father must have felt when he stumbled upon his mangled spare tire: that shameful discomfort which mingles acid indigestion with the bulging-eye sensation of the severely sleep deprived. Raising a teenager must feel a lot like having someone safety pin your eyes open and feed you nothing but bacon grease and chili peppers for six straight years.

    Personal Example #2: Showing with reflection

         And this I learned from being in love.

         I have been living with my girlfriend, Xena, for six months now. Last night, she called home around nine o’clock and invited me to our friend Endo’s house. Nursing a sore throat and beaten down by a week of midterms, I told her to have a good time without me. But what I thought was, Uh-oh, here we go again. As she promised to call back in a couple of hours, one hand fluttered towards my stomach and the other over my eyes. Endo is a struggling musician with bountiful gifts: charm, gab, and a truly welcoming soul. Indeed, I trust him to look after my girl more than her current best friend, Reese, a wild, frog-faced, self-absorbed rocker chick who tends to return Xena to me puking, dehydrated, and nerve-jangled. But still I trust Endo less than myself. 

         At 4 AM, Xena still hadn’t called back. I watched the ceiling and waited, too worn out to get up and get work done, too anxious to sleep, and too proud to phone Endo for her.

         Who was I kidding—Endo wouldn’t look after her; he’s a basket case himself. He can’t even train his pit bulls, who run wild through his undecorated apartment, chewing up all his clothes and pissing as if it were a form of communication. And wait a minute—look after her? Can’t my 20 year-old girlfriend take care of herself? Am I a lover or a parent? Are the two really supposed to be connected?

         But when you love someone who, in between weeks of taking your arm as you walk in the city, of offering unwrapped emotions and hopes in rambling midnight dialogues, of baking desserts that make your teeth ache—who, in between weeks of loving you back, feels the need to slip away and get obliterated until daylight, then be ill, dried out, racked with unchecked traumas and a crackling temper—then what? Who can you tell; or how can you train her; or should you look back?

         At ten in the morning there is the sound of an engine cutting off, then keys in the lock. Xena stumbles in, pink eyes searching. She shuffles towards the bedroom, then shuffles back and asks me if I am mad at her.

    Tie Personal Images Back to Extreme Example

         What can I say? In a way, I’m still dangling off the skyscraper of my teenage years by one hand, popping my parents’ arms out of joint as I swing around, gazing at the doves. And in my other hand is my wife, doing her own dance in the driving wind. In fact, there is a long chain of us, when I really look at it: Xena holds Endo and Reese, and beyond them the human family fans out—not just below us but above us. And with different gusts of wind, up and down reverse positions. I look up understand that without my girlfriend, I would be freefalling. Why she ever looks for fun away from me becomes less important than how fundamentally we are connected. She kisses me wearily, and despite myself I feel my mood begin to turn around. There in the human chain she fronts a row of smiles that are without strain, effortlessly beautiful. Giddily uplifting.





    Reflection: 7 Whys and a Connected Thought


    Here’s an example of reflection at work (what I’m looking for): 


    Thesis: People take each other for granted.


    Why? They have other desires than what a single person can fulfill. So they take everything that’s offered from one person, take that for granted so they don’t have to put more energy towards it, then use their spare energy looking to satisfy their other desires.


    Why? Maybe because everybody is partially blind: everybody sees some things and misses others. For example, why can’t one person fully satisfy another? Because they can’t see everything the other person needs. Or, even if they can, then the other person probably can’t see that they can. So there is blindness involved on everyone’s part.


    Why? Why can’t people see things as they really are? Well, this requires being very receptive—listening and noticing everything—and that takes time and energy. Most people won’t devote that time and energy to others; they’d rather devote it to themselves.


    Why? Maybe because life is short and the pull of desires is strong. Maybe people feel that if they don’t devote most of their time to getting what they want, they’ll die unhappy or incomplete. Or maybe because people only feel what is inside themselves, not what is in others, so how could anyone be expected to put others’ desires on a level with their own? So then it’s only natural to take others for granted.


    Why? Well, why do I take others for granted? What are my desires, and who do I take for granted? Etc…. (Notice that sometimes you have to rephrase the question.)


    Connected thought: Buddhism says that the root of all unhappiness is desire; if you learn how to stop wanting things, you stop being unhappy. If people didn’t desire to be appreciated, then they wouldn’t mind being taken for granted. And if people didn’t desire so much, then they wouldn’t need more than one person to satisfy them, so they wouldn’t need to take anyone for granted while they look for happiness elsewhere.


    Your job: Write your thesis. Then ask why that is so. Write the response, then ask why the new response is so. Keep going for 7 or more whys—at least until you pinpoint a source of personal or human motivation. Also write down any connected thoughts.


    Note: If you dead end, back up a few steps and try going forward with an emphasis on understanding (1) your personal motivations (in this page’s example, you could replace each use of “people” or “they” with “I”), or (2) human nature.


    Example: I like cake. Why? Because it’s good. Why? Because it’s sugary. Why? Because otherwise it wouldn’t be cake. Back up! Try emphasizing the I: Why do I like cake? Because I like sugary foods. Why? Because I prefer short-term satisfaction to long-term health planning. Why? Etc.


    Reflection: 6 Steps to Getting Deep

    and 2 to Thinking Sideways


    Getting deep at a moment’s notice may just get you by; some even interpret the skill as a sign of a “desirable” human being. This is true whether you’re broaching a conversation with a potential love interest while leaning casually against a sticky refrigerator so late at night that it’s almost early, or cranking out the standardized essay exam response that will secure your spot in the college of your dreams, there on the road to high self-esteem and your first gazillion dollars. Here’s how to do it. 


    Step One: Point Out a Physical Phenomenon


    Note something that happens. Anything at all, as long as it is specific. For example: Claire throws the softball to her father. 



    Step Two: Answer: Because Why?


    Give the simplest explanation for why that happened (or is happening). “Simplest” sometimes means so obvious that it sounds weird to even say it. For example: They’re playing catch and it’s her turn to throw it.



    Step Three: Use “Want” and Maybe “But”


    Rephrase your statement from Step Two, so that somebody wants something. If there is an obstacle in the way, mention that as well. For example: Claire wants to throw when it’s her turn. 


    ________________ want(s) to ______________________________________________


    (but ___________________________________________________________________.)



    Step Four: Generalize the Subject


    Replace the subject with the word “people.” (Or “animals,” if that is the case. Etc.) For example: People want to throw when it’s their turn. 


    People want to ___________________________________________________________


    (but ___________________________________________________________________.)


    Step Five: Generalize the Action


    Turn what is being done, and the obstacle (if there is one), from specific things to general things. How general to go is up to you.  For example: People want to do what is expected of them.


    People want to ___________________________________________________________


    (but ___________________________________________________________________.)


    Step Six: Turn it into a Line that Grabs


    Now just rephrase your deep (general) thought so that it sounds interesting. You may change any words, turn it into a question or a chunk of dialogue, or use any voice you think will be effective for your audience. For example: Happy relationships depend on mutual eagerness to please. Or: The only true love is puppy love: eager, loyal and mindless. Or: Codependence is bliss.




    That’s it! You’re as deep as the ocean. But keep it rolling, and raise the stakes, with Step 7. 


    Step Seven: Come Up With an Extreme Example.


    You will notice that your deep thought is really a kind of general category. Your Step One observation is one example within this category—probably a boring, low-stakes example. Raise the stakes and get weird with a more extreme example of the implications of your deep thought. For example:  In the future, in order to get along better, people will exchange brains while interacting.





    Congratulations: you observed, reflected (got deep), and showed lateral thinking (or thinking sideways—that is, making a connection between one example and another that might not at first seem connected). You are now desirable by somebody!


    Step Eight: Show-Don’t-Tell the Extreme Example


    Describe your whimsical vision of what the extreme example looks/sounds/smells/tastes/feels like, and/or what it means. For example: The tops of their heads will be slightly harder to unscrew than the lids of jam jars, but the process will involve very little blood, and mutual consensus will follow the procedure swiftly. Socially, this will result not only in mature relationships between teenagers, but monumental gains in workplace productivity.


    What next? Follow these steps for the activity you’re doing in your college essay: something you excel at and/or love. In answering why you do what you do (Step 2), cut to the deep reflection you achieved doing the “7 whys” (earlier in this reader). Then, using the essay structure offered on page 6 of this reader, write a paragraph of 3 sentences, in any order, or mixed together:

    State your “line” from Step 6. That’s your thesis. 

    Mention your extreme example.

    Show, don’t tell, what that example looks/sounds/smells/tastes/feels like.




    Reading Activity: Noticing Structure


    Read the essay, “Horse Love” (p. 523 in Perspectives), written by a college freshman. For each of the 10 paragraphs, write its function or functions (for many you should write more than one) in the space provided. Your choices are:


    THESIS    Sets up the Thesis                          SHOW                                   Uses Show, Don’t Tell

    REF         Reflects                                          (Your Label Here)     Other

    EX            Gives a New Example


    Paragraph #:


    1.     ____________________________          6.   _______________________________

    2.     ____________________________          7.   _______________________________

    3.   ____________________________          8.  _______________________________

    4.   ____________________________          9.   _______________________________

    5.   ____________________________          10. _______________________________






    From David Letterman’s Home Office:

    Top Ten Bad Titles for College Application Essays



    10.    “Why I’m Gonna Get So Much Attention in College”

    9.        “Chico, My Most Unforgettable Cellmate”

    1. “D’s = A’s: My High School’s Complex Grading System”

    7.   “Gross Things I Did to Food When I Worked at McDonald’s”

    6. “I Hired Some Chinese Kid to Write This Essay”

    5. “Why The Admissions Director Loves His Car and Wouldn’t Want Anything Bad

             to Happen to It”

    4. “A Few Ideas on What to Do With All Those Annoying Elderly People”

    3. “Kelly Clarkson: She’s a Good Singer, But Is She Really a Diva?”

    2. “One Year in College, Then ‘Hello, NBA!’”

    1.  “Instead of an Essay, Here’s a Photocopy of My Ass”




    Responsibility. Niceness. Intelligence.


    What are colleges (and pretty much anyone) looking for in an essayist? 

    Among other things, someone who is responsible, nice, and intelligent. 


    Responsibility. How can you show responsibility? Show yourself in a position of responsibility. Show that it was a sacrifice—yet that either you didn’t mind, or you minded at first, but then found it rewarding.


    Having trouble choosing the best subject to show your responsibility? 

    Make 3 columns. In the first, write a list of all your responsibilities, past or present.

    In the second, rank them in order of how big they are.

    In the third, rank them in order of how interesting they might be to write/read about.


    Mr. Doherty’s Responsibilities


    How Big?

    How Interesting?


    very big

    pretty interesting


    very big

    pretty interesting

    Home ownership

    pretty darn big

    not very

    goldfish ownership




    Not very big


    Bar manager

    Pretty big





    Niceness. How do you show you’re nice? Niceness has to do with kindness, humility, positivity, and helpfulness, so during your essay, you could

    ·         “turn the other cheek” at an insult (without coming across as a coward)

    ·         laugh at yourself (without coming across as incompetent)

    ·         help someone in need


    Fill in the blank:

    Man: I’m a Nice Guy

    Woman: Really?

    Man: Really. For example, just the other day ____________________________ ________________________________________________________________________


    E.g., This dog bit me while I was delivering meals to the elderly. It turns out his teeth couldn’t break the skin, so I wound up spending the whole day with him at the dentist. Bought him a whole new set of caps.
    Intelligence. How can you show intelligence? Well, three ways include showing insights, wisdom, and reasoning


    1. Insights (Sharp Observations): 

    Set up a paper as below: In the left column, list things that you are very familiar with—people, places, or activities that you know well, but that others don’t, necessarily.

    To the right, get specific: list details that you know about each thing on the left.


    I’m familiar with:                           Details Only I Know:



    2.   Wisdom (Long-term Decisions that consider different points of view):

    On the left, list big choices that you have made or witnessed. 

    On the right, name the different people involved, and consider their points of view.


    Big Choices:                                              People Involved; Their POVs



    3.     Reasoning. (A good chess player will think 3 or more moves ahead, considering the opponent’s best moves and reacting to them.) 

    For any idea or plan you have, there is an opposing idea or plan. When you react to that and make a new plan, there will be a new opposing plan. Etc.


    Name a big choice you have made, or an idea or plan you have:

    What is the best reason NOT to do or believe this?

    What is your best response to that?

    What is the best opposing point to you now?

    What is your final best response to that?

    (keep going if you can)


    Example from the TV show, Malcolm in the Middle: (At the time, Malcolm’s mother had a bad cold and slept through Sunday. She wakes up on Monday and thinks it’s Sunday—so Malcolm decides to stay home from school.)

    Malcolm’s Big Brother (calling from Military School): Listen, Malcolm, I need you to intercept a letter to Mom that says I drove a tractor into somebody’s swimming pool.

    Malcolm: No. You told Mom I blew up the mailbox, so why should I do you any favors?

    Big Brother: It wasn’t my fault. She was putting heavy pressure on me. She told me I couldn’t come home from Military School for the summer unless I told her.

    Malcolm: Not good enough. You’re supposed to look out for me, you’re my big brother.

    Big Brother: OK, listen, if you give her the letter, she’ll realize it’s not Sunday and know you are supposed to be in school. 

    Malcolm: I’ll tell her it came special delivery.

    Big Brother: She’ll see the stamp.

    Malcolm: I’ll tell her I saw it was from your school so I opened it already. Once she reads the letter, she’ll forget everything except how mad she is at you.

    Big Brother: Damn. 




    4.     Now write the scene. Describe an incident from your life—and try to show insights, wisdom, and/or reasoning.

    How to Introduce Characters (Using Contradictions and Physical and Non-Physical Details)


    F. Scott Fitzgerald was great at introducing characters—and you can be, too. The quotes below are from The Great Gatsby. Please read them, then answer the following:


    (1) Where does Fitzgerald present contradictory features, traits and even judgments to make a character seem more realistic?


    (2) For each character, circle the descriptors that identify physical traits. Underline those that describe traits of spirit or personality. How does he balance and arrange them?


    (4) In the spirit of Fitzgerald, take a paragraph of at least five sentences to introduce a character in your autobiography or personal essay.



    George Wilson: He was a blond, spiritless man, anemic and faintly handsome. When he saw us a damp gleam of hope sprang up into his light blue eyes. 


    Myrtle Wilson (Tom Buchanan’s mistress): I heard footsteps on a stairs and in a moment the thickish figure of a woman blocked out the light from the office door. She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crepe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smoldering. She smiled slowly and walking through her husband as if he were a ghost shook hands with Tom, looking him flush in the eye. Then she wet her lips and without turning around spoke…


    Catherine Wilson (Myrtle’s sister): The sister, Catherine, was a slender, worldly girl of about thirty with a solid sticky bob of red hair and a complexion powdered milky white. Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle but the efforts of nature towards restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face. When she moved about there was an incessant clicking as innumerable pottery bracelets jingled up and down upon her arms. She came in with such a proprietary haste and looked around so possessively at the furniture that I wondered if she lived here. But when I asked her she laughed immoderately, repeated my question aloud and told me she lived with a girl friend at a hotel.


    Mr. McKee: Mr. McKee was a pale feminine man from the flat below. He had just shaved for there was a white spot of lather on his cheekbone and he was most respectful in his greeting to everyone in the room. He informed me that he was a photographer and had made the dim enlargement of Mrs. Wilson’s mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall.


    Mrs. McKee: His wife was shrill, languid, handsome and horrible. She told me with pride that her husband had photographed her a hundred and twenty seven times since they had been married.


    Essay Worksheet: Tone, Trimming Fat, Active Voice


    Choose the proper tone for a college application essay:


    1 (a) I now propose to elaborate upon the circumstances surrounding the collision.

    (b)  I will now describe the accident.

    (c)  Let me tell you how I crashed the car.

    (d)  Hear me on how I hella tore up the scraper.


    2 (a) I can’t stand physics.

    (b)  Physics is a stupid science.

    (c)  Physics is a mystery to me.


    3 (a)I desire so fervently to attend Amherst because I believe it is the only school that will enable me to explore my intellectual capabilities…

       (b)During my visit in October, I had a good feeling about the academic life of the campus. It offers so much...


    4.     (a) During that year, my proclivities toward Italian art were instigated.

          (b) During that year, I began to favor Italian art.


    Trim the fat from the following sentences (Make them say the same thing in less space):


    5. Uncle Nathan is someone who likes fly fishing.


    6. Todd had a dog which he took on long walks.


    7. There were geese swimming on the pond.


    8. The thing I am interested in is science.


    9. My brother is an honest person. That’s a quality I respect in him.



    Change the following from passive to active voice.


    10. El Duke’s pitch was lined by Offerman into left.


    11. The sea bass was sautéed by Mrs. Doherty.


    12. My summer in Boston was enjoyable.


    13. The issue was settled by the DJ.


    14. There was the distant wailing of an ambulance.



    A Dynamic Figure


    Sometimes a different approach can work. The following essay purportedly helped Hugh Gallagher get into NYU.


    Prompt: Are there any significant experiences you have had, or accomplishments you have realized, that have helped to define you as a person?


    I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice.  I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. 


    I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing. I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.


    Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge. 


    I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat .400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. 


    I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me. 


    I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life, but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis. 


    But I have not yet gone to college. 




    In the Mist of Choosing Colleges


    William Hiss, Dean of Admissions at Bates College in Maine, compiled a list of bloopers from admissions essays. Richard Lederer published them in his book More Anguished English. Enjoy. 


    • I am in the mist of choosing colleges.


    • I was abducted into the national honor society.


    • So this is the essay that will get me into Bates. Let me tell you about mee.


    • I function well as an individual and a group.


    • In my senior year, I am serving as writting editor of the yearbook.


    • I want to be fully bilingual in three or more languages.


    • I proliferate with English courses.


    • I can read, speak, and write Greek fluently. My other two sports are tennis and volleyball.


    • I would like to become a veterinarian. I have volunteered in dog kennels and cat houses.


    • I like Bates because it is very private and small in stature.


    • Mathematics has hung like a stork around my neck.


    • I am a freshman at Mount Holyoke College. I am considering going to Bates College for a year and then possibly transferring. I applied as an undergraduate and was weight-listed.


    • I have taken may curses in literature and writing.


    • I am writing to tell you that I was very discouraged when I found out that I had been differed from Bates.


    • At night we stayed in a youth hostile.


    • I have a conscious which keeps everything in check.


    • I’ve never been to New England, but from what I’ve heard it’s a beautiful country.


    • I want a small liberal in the northeast part of the country.


    • Some things that make me different is that I like to listen to a wide variety of music, for example Boston and Ratt.


    • Bates is a small school that is not homogenized.


    • Needles to say, ...


    • So exists my idea of college. Perhaps I am chasing rainbows. But so I shall. I see now that one of them has B-A-T-E inscribed on it.
















     Christopher Buckley, "College Essay" can be found here. 






    Editor Name:__________________________ Writer Name______________________


    Please make comments under each of the categories below, noting where you find strengths (where the essay GLOWs) and weaknesses (where it could GROW). Be tough yet kind, and above all, BE SPECIFIC. Any comments that do not fit into these categories please add at the end.


    When finished, please discuss your comments with the writer. THANK YOU.


    *     *     *


    1. What qualities does the author reveal about him/herself?________________________





    2.     For each category, please add a check or comments (as appropriate) under “GLOW,” “GROW,” or both. Note strengths. Offer suggestions. Be specific.


    GLOW                                    GROW


    Is the title interesting?


    Does the first

    sentence grab you?



    By the end of the first paragraph,

    do you have an idea where the essay

    is headed?



    Is the essay organized clearly?



    Does the essay build in intensity?




    Does the writer use sensory 

    details (sight, sound, smell,

    taste, feel) and moment-to-moment

    descriptions to draw you in?

    Does the essay show deep, clear

    reflection by EXPLORING WHY

    the author feels the way he/she does

    about the subject?




    Is the tone of the essay engaging

    and positive, not too casual and

    not artificially intellectual, neither

    begging nor bragging?



    Does the writer of the essay come across

    as being as interesting and wonderful

    as you know the writer to be?



    Does the ending offer the reader

    a memorable phrase or line?



    Are sentences formed correctly?



    Do verb tenses agree?


    Is punctuation correct?


    Is spelling correct?


    Is the essay typed and double spaced?


    3. Please add your comments here. Continue on another page if necessary. 



    Personal Statement (College Essay)        Writer Name: ___________________________

                                                                    Scored by: ______________________________                                                     

    Requirement:                                                                      ­                                                Score:

                                                                                                                             No           Sort of        Yes! Good!

    Subject: What you’re doing in the essay is the best possible activity to            -50               5                   15

    reveal your positive qualities. Your choice of moment(s) is/are the best

    possible for that activity: you do fully reveal those good qualities.


    Showing: One specific MOMENT is held and developed. It’s vivid,                       0              10                  25

    engaging, full of the kind of original details only you would know. 


    Reflection: You literally ask why you do what you’re doing in the                          0               10                 25

    the essay, or why the moment is important to you. Your answers

    dig deep, and show you as intelligent, probing and honest. 


    Organization/Integration of Moments: How you shift between                                                0               10                 20

    showing, reflection, and connected examples is balanced,

    maintains the reader’s attention, and doesn’t repeat or sprawl.


    The paper has a title, and is typed, with flawless mechanics.                                     0               5                   15


    Any reductions for being late (-10% within one week or -25% between 1-4 weeks)

    or missing two peer edits (-5% each)?



    Personal Statement (College Essay)        Writer Name: ___________________________

                                                                    Scored by: ______________________________                                                     

    Requirement:                                                                      ­                                                Score:

                                                                                                                             No           Sort of        Yes! Good!

    Subject: What you’re doing in the essay is the best possible activity to            -50               5                   15

    reveal your positive qualities. Your choice of moment(s) is/are the best

    possible for that activity: you do fully reveal those good qualities.


    Showing: One specific MOMENT is held and developed. It’s vivid,                       0              10                  25

    engaging, full of the kind of original details only you would know. 


    Reflection: You literally ask why you do what you’re doing in the                          0               10                 25

    the essay, or why the moment is important to you. Your answers

    dig deep, and show you as intelligent, probing and honest. 


    Organization/Integration of Moments: How you shift between                                                0               10                 20

    showing, reflection, and connected examples is balanced,

    maintains the reader’s attention, and doesn’t repeat or sprawl.


    The paper has a title, and is typed, with flawless mechanics.                                     0               5                   15


    Any reductions for being late (-10% within one week or -25% between 1-4 weeks)

    or missing two peer edits (-5% each)?





     Sample Essay #2: 


    Annabel Vernon

    AP Comp/ 3rd Period


    Good Girl


               I have become blind. I can no longer see the bright colors of the storefronts or the bustling people in downtown San Rafael, where I now stand. Something pounds at my chest, and I realize with a swallow it is my heart.  A drop of sweat slides down my back, bringing with it an apprehensive shiver. I feel leather and plastic in my hand. Smooth fur brushes against my left calf.

               “Reach down and pick up the handle, then tell Gigi to go forward.” I instantly recognize Palmer’s quiet yet firm voice. I picture her, tall and blond with pinched lips. She’s wearing the same blue knee length shorts I am.

               “Gigi, forward,” I command. A tugging at my left arm, and we’re off, walking the streets of San Rafael. As we walk, slowly at first, then faster, I feel the cracks of the sidewalk under my feet; feel the wind of people as they walk by. My mind turns uneasily.

               We stop. I reach out and feel for the edge of the curb with my foot. “Good girl, Gigi,” I say.

               “Turn left,” Palmer tells me.

               “Gigi, left,” I repeat. I take a step back and motion with my hand. The tugging begins again and we go left. The sidewalk begins to rise, and my stomach begins to flip, accompanying my unsettled mind. Why can’t I breathe? I reach up, scratch my neck with my right hand. I scratch my cheek, then my nose. I tuck a piece of hair behind my ear; touch the elastic of the blindfold. Listen to my instructors laugh about the first time they worked a dog. My hand twitches at my side, and I imagine stripping off the blindfold. “Good girl, Gigi,” I say, half to distract myself and half to spur her on.

               Good. The word holds so many different meanings for me. It’s what my mom says I am when I go off to spend the weekend at my dad’s house despite my need to take a break from life. It’s what my friends say when I tell them I’ll be there, same as always, and it’s who I think I am as a person.

               No one wants to see the problems of the world. Nobody wants to have to worry about a famine in 2020, or see all the people on the street, hunched over, defeated, with no dignity or pride because of what society tells them they are. People want to forget about little boys who are slapped by their fathers and ignored by their mothers, and children in Africa who are forced to fight for a cause they know nothing about. I don’t want to look, either. But I can’t turn away. And so my mind works to solve these problems. It takes in all the issues of the world, turns them over, extracts every piece of information it can by looking at each one from every possible angle, but at the end of the day, it must go about its own life. It must think about its own body first, and that’s what it does. Right now, the most I can do is volunteer the little time I have after school, sports, and music to causes I care about, like assisting the blind.

    I want to make a difference in the world. One day I will have the tools to go out and influence the world and I will use them. Not only will I use them to help those less fortunate, but also to slice the elastic bands pressing blindfolds to the faces of too many. For now, I content myself with guiding those around me to take the right path because I can see colors of the world that they choose not to see.

               I sit on a white chair in the middle of a bright green lawn under three redwood trees that soar above my head into the cloudless turquoise sky. Next to me sits my mom. All around us are puppy raisers dressed in clashing Hawaiian shirts fondly stroking their lab and golden guide dog puppies, which are decked out in leis and sunglasses and their ever-present puppy vests for Fun Day. Today is graduation. On the front steps of the dining hall, a microphone is handed from person to person until it reaches the young woman with red hair at the edge of the platform. She gets up, centers herself, and turns in the general direction of the crowd.

               Her name is Alycia. She babbles about how she left home and flew all the way from Canada for the first time to come to Guide Dogs for the Blind. Gigi is her first guide dog. When she arrives home, she will attend college by herself. She starts to laugh. Then she starts to cry. It is silent. A tear slides down my cheek, and another down my mom’s, for this amazing women and this amazing dog.

               Gigi is led onto the platform and put into a sit next to Alycia. Alycia reaches down, touches the head of the small black lab with trusting chocolate eyes gazing up at her. She slides her hand down Gigi’s smooth back, finds the handle of the harness. They stand. As I smile through silent tears, Gigi guides her person to where they need to go.

               Good girl.  

Last Modified on October 7, 2019