Watching the World Cup today–hooray, USA, for surviving the Group of Death!–I was transported back to those days when I was devoting so much of my energies to shepherding my younger son from soccer game to soccer game. He was an extremely talented player, always was, and we knew that soccer was going to be his calling card at colleges. Not that he wasn’t also academically achieving, but soccer was his strength and his distinction, even in a crowded field.
When it came time to actually apply to colleges, I helped my younger son with his essay, as I did his brother. One of the great things about having children is that you have subjects handy for experimentation (only kidding!). I didn’t know much of anything about the college admissions essay at that point and I suggested he write something about soccer. He had gone through a really bad year with a very bizarre coach, and just before he was due to go to soccer camp at Wesleyan College in Connecticut, he ran over his beloved pit bull, who died after hanging on for a day. It was traumatic and yet, even though he called home in tears each of the nights he was away (really wrenching to hear a 17-year-old boy cry like that), he still applied himself well enough to come away with the all-important positive write-up from the Wesleyan coach. The essay then became about the confluence of these events–off year with the coach; trauma before the soccer camp; prevailing over the adversity–and it turned out to be a really excellent job. Good enough to help him get into his first choice school, Oberlin College, where he played soccer for a year and then called it quits.
I’m telling you this story not only because I’m in a nostalgic soccer mood, but also because I want you to know that I don’t believe in hard and fast rules when it comes to writing the college admissions essay. Oh, I do firmly believe in the rule that you shouldn’t brag about yourself or approach this assignment as if you’re writing a resume–that’s a very big mistake–but people tell me that you can’t write about sports injuries and you can’t write about dead pets and you can’t write about grandparents and I don’t buy that. There are no new stories–only new ways of telling them. If you can make your dead pet story sound like something more than a familiar and obvious attempt to pull at the heartstrings, then why not write about it, if it was as important a moment in your life as it was in the life of my son? Indeed, an interesting variation on a tried, true, and often trite situation can make for a particularly effective essay.