The single most memorable line we read this year came from an essay by Carolina Sosa, who lives in Centreville, Va., and will attend Georgetown University. In writing about her father’s search for a job, she described the man named Dave who turned him away.
“Job searching is difficult for everyone, but in a world full of Daves, it’s almost impossible,” she wrote. “Daves are people who look at my family and immediately think less of us. They think illegal, poor and uneducated. Daves never allow my dad to pass the first round of job applications. Daves watch like hawks as my brother and I enter stores. Daves inconsiderately correct my mother’s grammar. Because there are Daves in the world, I have become a protector for my family.”
Vanessa J. Krebs, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Georgetown, who reads about 1,400 essays year, told me that when she first received my interview request, the phrase “the Daves” immediately jumped out of her memory bank.
Though Ms. Sosa might easily have become embittered by her encounters with the Daves, Ms. Krebs said that she was moved by the fact that the essay concluded with the desire to pursue a career in public service, even if she wasn’t exactly sure where that desire would take her.
“This is a starting point, and she is still figuring that out,” Ms. Krebs said. “A lot of people think they need to have all the answers already. Or they feel like they do have it all figured out.”
Other memorable moments emerged in an essay by Martina Piñeiros, a Chicago resident who will be attending Northwestern University.
“Fatigue and two jobs had ruined who both my parents used to be, and I began to value the little time I had with my mother more than ever before,” she wrote. “This little time could not make up for the time I spent alone, however, nor could it assuage the envy I had of the little girl my mother looked after. She, though not my mother’s daughter, had the privilege of having my mother and her delicious cooking all to herself; I would always get the leftovers. She also had the privilege of having my mother pin her silky blonde hair into a pretty bun before ballet classes while my dad wrestled with the hairbrush to pull my thick brown hair into two lopsided ponytails before dropping me off at the bus stop. But I couldn’t blame the girl for depriving me of my mother; her parents had also been consumed by their jobs.”
It is rare that any teenagers write well about what it is like to have more money than average. Most don’t even try, for fear of being marked as privileged in a world where some people resent those who have it or are clueless about it. Yorana Wu, who lives in Great Neck, N.Y., and will attend the University of Chicago, wrote about her father, who spends much of the year in China, where he opened a canned fruit factory when Ms. Wu was 8 years old.
“That was the first year a seat at the dinner table remained empty and a car in the garage sat untouched,” she wrote. “Every dollar comes at the expense of his physical distance.”
While she has her tennis and music lessons (and expresses mixed feelings about the affluence that allows for them), she speaks to him in five-minute phone segments when he is away.
“He is living the American dream by working elsewhere,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims, my fellow reader, observed. “There is a cost to this choice.”
We published a pair of essays about what it means to navigate two worlds simultaneously. One, by Annabel La Riva, who is also the subject of a video feature, discusses the distance (in more ways than one) between her Brooklyn home and her Manhattan church choir, where her love for singing began.
In another, Jon Carlo Dominguez of North Bergen, N.J., discusses his choice to turn right out his front door, toward the prep school he attends, instead of left, toward his neighborhood school. When the two schools meet on the football field, he writes, some of his classmates shout, “That’s all right, that’s O.K., you’ll be working for us someday.” His response is to tutor his local friends with his used test-preparation books, share guides to lucid dreaming and pass on tips he learned from Dale Carnegie.
“Every single day he is making a choice, and he is conscious of the costs and the benefits on both sides,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said. “The way that he addresses it is beautiful. He’s trying to bridge that world and be that bridge.”
One of the 10 or so essays that Mr. Lanser, the associate dean of admission for Wesleyan, read about work this year was set at a Domino’s Pizza store in Forestdale, Ala. Adriane Tharp, who will attend the university in the fall, is the author, and her rendering of the lineup of fellow misfits who were her colleagues there is something to behold.
There is the pizza maker from Pakistan who looks like Bob Dylan and sings folk songs from his homeland; the part-time preacher who also delivers pies; and Richard, the walking “Star Wars” encyclopedia. One woman has worked for pizzerias for over 25 years and is about to apply to college.
“The point of the essay is not to tell us that she needs work or doesn’t,” Mr. Lanser said. “What she wants us to learn from this is that she is able to embrace difference and learn quite a bit from those differences.”
I offered him the opportunity to disabuse overeager parents of the notion that admissions officers at competitive colleges devalue work experience, and he laughed. “We think there are valuable life skills and people skills to be gained in the workplace,” he said, adding that he personally believes that everyone should work in the service industry at some point in their lives.
Rob Henderson’s service was to his country, and his essay was ultimately about what the United States Air Force did for him.
Of his time as a foster child, he wrote, “I was compelled to develop social skills to receive care from distracted foster parents.” He was finally adopted, but his parents quickly divorced (the adoption came up in arguments before his father cut off ties) and eventually found stability with his mother and her partner, at least until her partner was shot. An insurance settlement led to a home purchase, which ended in foreclosure.
After high school, he enlisted. Eight years later, he’s still deciding where he’ll attend college in the fall. “I’ve accomplished much over the last seven years because the Air Force provides an organized setting that contrasts with the chaos of my upbringing,” he wrote.
Ms. Lythcott-Haims felt herself rooting for him, and she added that his essay was a good reminder that the United States military is a beacon for many young adults, even with the high risks that may come with their service. “This is one way you make a life in America,” she said. “It’s more common than we realize. And he is self-made.”Continue reading the main story
Writers Workshop: Writer Resources
Writing Tips: In-class Essay Exams
Below are some tips for taking in-class essay exams. See also tips for taking standardized essay exams.
Study Your Teacher
Different teachers stress different points. For example, one teacher of American History may stress social history, another economic history or the history of foreign policy. Most teachers are fair; they will test on what they stress in class. Check your notes.
Have faith in your own intelligence. Ask yourself what kind of questions you would ask over the given material. Chances are that at least some of your questions will appear on the test. If you can anticipate a test question, the test will appear familiar to you.
Do Not Panic
Anyone who has done nothing more than to sit in class and listen knows at least some of the material. Of course, you have also studied diligently. You are prepared. Remember that taking an essay exam well depends upon the wise budgeting of time.
Budget Your Time
Read the entire test before you begin to write. The last question may be weighed heavily and thus require more time. Ask yourself how much time you can afford to spend on each question. If you do not finish all the minor questions in the allotted time, go on to the major question. Come back to the smaller questions later.
Read Individual Questions Carefully
Has your teacher asked you to choose two of five questions? If you answer all the questions when you have a choice, you lose time and points. When you are faced with a choice, decide quickly and do not change your mind. Doing so takes time, and lost time means lost points.
Watch For Key Words
Does your instructor ask you to "discuss," "compare," "contrast," "summarize," "explain," or "relate"? Note that some key words give you more freedom than do others. The words "contrast" and "summarize," for instance, are very precise. You must obey these words by doing exactly what they say. However, the word "discuss" gives you some freedom. You might discuss a topic by summarizing, relating, explaining, or some combination thereof.
Answer the Major Question
An essay question is just what the name implies--an essay. You know that an essay should have a thesis or purpose statement; the answer you write for the essay question should also have a thesis to help you organize your thoughts and keep you from straying from your main point. A clear thesis will also make your answer easy for your instructor to follow.
Organize before you write. 1/10 to 1/5 of the time spent on a question should be spent in organization. If other students are writing furiously, they are probably writing without a purpose. Make a rough outline to keep you on track.
After outlining, write the essay, filling in the details. Be as specific as possible. Do not be satisfied with general statements such as, "Spallanzani advanced the science of microbe hunting." How so? -- by exposing superstitions. What superstitions? -- he proved the Vegetative Force to be a myth by cleverly demonstrating that microbes must have parents. Generalities by themselves are boring. Details alone are just a grocery list. Use your details to support a general context, and then draw relevant conclusions.
Use a General Organizing Principle
When instructors ask you to discuss, they want you to show more than a knowledge of the facts. They want you to demonstrate a grasp of the relationships among the facts. They want to know if you see similarities, differences, or cause-effect relationships. For example, even though you write a wealth of facts, you might fail a history question involving the Crusades and the discovery of America if you miss the cause-effect relationship. Show that you know how the Crusades led to the discovery of America. Often, essay exams ask you to be able to discuss relevant details within a general framework. Know the big picture, and be able to discuss how details are interrelated within that big picture.
If you finish early, proofread the test to check facts, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. If you have left something out, put in a legible footnote that can easily be found.