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Many college applicants have had summer camp experiences. In this Common Application essay, Max discusses his challenging relationship with a difficult student who ends up having a lot to contribute.
The Essay Prompt
Max's essay was originally written for the pre-2013 Common Application essay prompt that states, "Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence." The influential person option no longer exists, but there are many ways to write about an important person with the current seven essay options on the 2018-19 Common Application.
Max's essay has recently been revised to fit the new 650-word length limit of the current Common Application, and it would work nicely with the 2018-19 prompt #2: "The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?"
The essay would also work well with Common Application essay option #5, "Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others."
Max's Common Application Essay
Anthony was neither a leader nor a role model. In fact, his teachers and his parents were constantly chastising him because he was disruptive, ate too much, and had a hard time staying focused. I met Anthony when I was a counselor at a local summer camp. The counselors had the usual duties of keeping kids from smoking, drowning, and killing each other. We made God's eyes, friendship bracelets, collages, and other clichés. We rode horses, sailed boats, and hunted snipe.
Each counselor also had to teach a three-week course that was supposed to be a little more “academic” than the usual camp fare. I created a class called “Things that Fly.” I met with fifteen students for an hour a day as we designed, built, and flew kites, model rockets, and balsawood airplanes.
Anthony signed up for my class. He was not a strong student. He had been kept back a year at his school, and he was larger and louder than the other middle school kids. He talked out of turn and lost interest when others were talking. In my class, Anthony got some good laughs when he smashed his kite and threw the pieces into the wind. His rocket never made it to the launch pad because he crumpled it in a fit of frustration when a fin fell off.
In the final week, when we were making airplanes, Anthony surprised me when he drew a sketch of a sweep-wing jet and told me he wanted to make a “really cool plane.” Like many of Anthony's teachers, and perhaps even his parents, I had largely given up on him. Now he suddenly showed a spark of interest. I didn't think the interest would last, but I helped Anthony get started on a scale blueprint for his plane. I worked one-on-one with Anthony and had him use his project to demonstrate to his classmates how to cut, glue and mount the balsawood framework. When the frames were complete, we covered them with tissue paper. We mounted propellers and rubber bands. Anthony, with all his thumbs, created something that looked a bit like his original drawing despite some wrinkles and extra glue.
Our first test flight saw Anthony's plane nose-dive straight into the ground. His plane had a lot of wing area in the back and too much weight in the front. I expected Anthony to grind his plane into the earth with his boot. He didn't. He wanted to make his creation work. The class returned to the classroom to make adjustments, and Anthony added some big flaps to the wings. Our second test flight surprised the whole class. As many of the planes stalled, twisted, and nose-dived, Anthony's flew straight out from the hillside and landed gently a good 50 yards away.
I'm not writing about Anthony to suggest that I was a good teacher. I wasn't. In fact, I had quickly dismissed Anthony like many of his teachers before me. At best, I had viewed him as a distraction in my class, and I felt my job was to keep him from sabotaging the experience for the other students. Anthony's ultimate success was a result of his own motivation, not my instruction.
Anthony's success wasn't just his plane. He had succeeded in making me aware of my own failures. Here was a student who was never taken seriously and had developed a bunch of behavioral issues as a result. I never stopped to look for his potential, discover his interests, or get to know the kid beneath the facade. I had grossly underestimated Anthony, and I am grateful that he was able to disillusion me.
I like to think that I'm an open-minded, liberal, and non-judgmental person. Anthony taught me that I'm not there yet.
Critique of Max's Common Application Essay
In general, Max has written a strong essay for the Common Application, but it does take a few risks. Below you'll find a discussion of the essay's strengths and weaknesses.
Essays on important or influential people can quickly become predictable and cliché when they focus on the typical heroes of high school students: a parent, a brother or sister, a coach, a teacher.
From the first sentence, we know that Max's essay is going to be different: "Anthony was neither a leader nor a role model." Max's strategy is a good one, and the admissions folks who read the essay will most likely be pleased to read an essay that isn't about how Dad is the greatest role model or Coach is the greatest mentor.
Also, essays on influential people often conclude with the writers explaining how they've become a better people or owe all of their success to the mentor. Max takes the idea in a different direction - Anthony has made Max realize that he isn't as good of a person as he had thought, that he still has much to learn. The humility and self-critique is refreshing.
There's no one rule for writing a winning essay title, but Max's title is perhaps a little too clever. "Student Teacher" immediately suggests a student who is teaching (something that Max is doing in his narrative), but the true meaning is that Max's student taught him an important lesson. Thus, both Anthony and Max are "student teachers."
However, that double meaning is not apparent until after one has read the essay. The title by itself does not immediately grab our attention, nor does it clearly tell use what the essay will be about.
For the most part, Max maintains a pretty serious tone throughout the essay. The first paragraph does have a nice touch in the way that it pokes fun at all the cliché activities that are typical of summer camp.
The real strength of the essay, however, is that Max manages the tone to avoid sounding like he is bragging about his accomplishments. The self-criticism of the essay's conclusion may seem like a risk, but it arguably works to Max's advantage. The admissions counselors know that no student is perfect, so Max's awareness of his own short-comings will probably be interpreted as a sign of maturity, not as red flag highlighting a defect in character.
The Essay Length
At 631 words, Max's essay is at the upper end of the Common Application length requirement of 250 to 650 words. This is not a bad thing. If a college is requesting an essay, it is because the admissions folks want to get to know the applicant better. They can learn more from you with a 600-word essay than with a 300-word essay. You may encounter counselors who argue that admissions officers are extremely busy, so shorter is always better. This little evidence to support such a claim, and you'll find very few applicants to top-tier colleges (such as the Ivy League schools) being admitted with essays that don't take advantage of the space allowed.
The ideal essay length is certainly subjective and depends in part on the applicant and the story being narrated, but Max's essay length is absolutely fine. This is particularly true because the prose is never wordy, flowery, or excessive. The sentences tend to be short and clear, so the overall reading experience isn't labored.
The opening sentence grabs our attention because it isn't what we expect from an essay. The conclusion is also pleasingly surprising. Many students would be tempted to make themselves the hero of the essay and state what a profound impact they had on Anthony. Max turns it around, highlights his own failures, and gives the credit to Anthony.
The balance of the essay isn't perfect. Max's essay spends far more time describing Anthony than it does describing Anthony's influence. Ideally, Max could cut a couple sentences from the middle of the essay and then develop a little further the two short concluding paragraphs.
Max's essay, like Felicity's essay, takes some risks. It's possible an admissions officer would judge Max negatively for exposing his biases. But this is unlikely. In the end, Max presents himself as someone who is a leader (he is designing and teaching a class, after all) and as someone who is aware that he still has much to learn. These are qualities that should be attractive to most college admissions folks. After all, colleges want to admit students who are eager to learn and who have the self-awareness to recognize that they have room for a lot more personal growth.