“You’ve got a much better chance of getting into Harvard than getting your essay into this book.” –Boykin Curry, editor, Essays that Worked: 50 Essays from Successful Applications to the Nation’s Top Colleges
Sitting on a bus on the way home after a mid-January row on the Wannsee, it occurred to me that I made a wrong turn about 25 years ago. I thought about the MA in English I completed after college, how it should have been an MFA.* I was not close to understanding who I was or what my strengths were, and I did what I thought was the right thing at the time, though it was really a suppression of myself and the work I longed to do.
My college application essay was one of the first personal essays I ever wrote. Bucknell University’s question was innocuous and far-reaching, something to the effect of “Tell us about yourself.” I wrote about the last hour I spent with three children I was babysitting, before I started my first job in a fast-food restaurant in my neighborhood. The youngest child had spina bifida. The father, incidentally, was a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer who would go on to write Black Hawk Down. I wrote about how eager I was to move on to a more substantial work commitment than babysitting, but how in the moments when I said good-bye I realized that this had been real, meaningful work all along.
Unbeknownst to me, my guidance counselor had included my essay in a batch of my class’s college application essays and mailed them off to an editor in response to his query, as had counselors from high schools across the country. I will never forget the afternoon the phone rang in our apartment where my mother, sister and I had recently moved after an abrupt separation from my father. I was wearing my favorite purple turtleneck, faded from constant wear. I took the phone from my mother and listened to the words of the editor, hardly believing him when he said that my essay would appear in his book. I asked if he would send me a copy, but he said I could find it in any bookstore by fall. My mouth hung open in astonishment and a dark stain appeared where I drooled on my shirt. Continue reading