Fishing for an Effective College Essay

August 10, 2015

fishing_essayOne of the most memorable essays I ever read was written by a student we’ll call Sam, a rising high school senior from Massachusetts. He had written at least a dozen drafts trying to rehash his impressive résumé as a computer science whiz, and despite my urging to try a different approach, he was insistent that he wanted to highlight his intelligence and problem-solving skills.

Finally, during our third Skype call of the week, I asked him to humor me and try answering a different prompt. Instead of talking about what made him a unique applicant, I asked him to recount a time when he learned from a failure.

“But I’ve never really failed,” he said slowly. “I’ve always gotten good grades and my test scores are perfect. There’s nothing to really talk about.”

“Right,” I said, “but what about in other aspects of your life? Has ‘Sam, the person’ – not ‘Sam, the scholar’ – ever messed up?”

“Well, I did place second in the middle school science fair,” he said. “But I won the next year, so that probably isn’t what you’re talking about.”

“Let’s focus on the last three years,” I said. “Take a day or two to really think about it. There must be a time when you acted in a way that you later regretted. Or a moment that you wish you could do over. Challenge yourself to write about a time when things didn’t work out the way you wanted to but you learned something from that experience.”

Sam was quiet, looking at something on his screen. I could tell that he wasn’t happy with my suggestion and was biting his tongue to keep himself from telling me he wasn’t going to do it.

“Look, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll return to the first question and try again,” I said. “I just think that you need to get some distance from that prompt. Let’s try something new, and we’ll see what happens.”

“Ok, I’ll try,” he mumbled. “Actually, I think I might have an idea.”

A few days later, Sam sent me an essay recounting the afternoon when he tried to teach his grandfather how to use Skype. At first I was skeptical because I assumed he had returned to the first prompt and was going to “humble brag” about what a good teacher he was, but I was pleasantly surprised by what he had written.

Sam began his essay by setting a chaotic scene. You could feel his frustration as his grandfather fumbled with the computer mouse, pointing it at the computer screen like it was a television remote. After Sam walked him through the basics of turning the computer on and off, his grandfather knocked a glass of water onto the keyboard. Mashing a beach towel into the keys, jumbled letters appeared in open search bars while windows flashed across the screen. Eventually the computer turned off, “either in confusion or rebellion, it was unclear which.” At this point, you could almost hear Sam’s elevated blood pressure pulsing through the page.

After two hours of trying to teach his grandfather the basics of logging into Skype and turning the desktop camera on, Sam declared the situation hopeless. Grabbing his fishing pole from the porch, he stormed out of the house, angry that something so easy had kept him from enjoying an afternoon with his friends. He walked to the water’s edge and cast the line into the still lake.

Something about the sound of the line whizzing through the air sparked a memory, and Sam suddenly found himself thinking back to the summer when his grandfather had taught him how to fish. Young Sam had been squeamish about touching the slimy worms, and despite his best efforts, he could barely cast two feet in front of him. Sitting on the edge of the dock, Sam remembered studying his grandfather’s careful movements as he demonstrated a proper cast. Flick the line over your shoulder and release the reel at the high point of the arm movement. Watch as the bobber splashes with a satisfying “plop!” into deep water. It looked so easy that anyone could do it.

Sam’s eyes welled with tears as he recalled his grandfather’s proud smile the day his grandson finally caught his first fish, a tiny one no bigger than the mouse the old man had been aiming at the computer screen earlier that afternoon. The photo of the two of them holding that first catch still hung on his grandparents’ fridge almost ten years later.

Sam didn’t tell the reader what happened next. He concluded the essay by recalling his thoughts on the slow walk back to the house, and the soft thud of the porch door as it closed behind him. Did his grandfather ever figure out how to use Skype? Or did the computer end up “swimming with the fishes” at the bottom of the lake? On my first read through, I thought that he needed to answer these questions in order to complete the story, but after I read it a few more times, I realized that the answers didn’t matter.

In that final paragraph, Sam was able to explain how his failure to keep his cool reminded him that learning something new requires patience, both on the part of the teacher and the student. Seven-year-old Sam had taken the better part of a week to master casting a line into the lake, but seventeen-year-old Sam had only spent a handful of hours helping his grandfather before abandoning him. He also pondered what would happen if his professors grew tired of teaching him a concept they had mastered years ago. Would they declare defeat and walk out of the classroom?

Sam’s essay was a thoughtful reminder that we don’t become who we are without some help along the way. While the opening passage made me laugh, the conclusion brought to mind the times when I had been impatient with someone who was learning something new. I even felt a twinge of guilt for how frustrated I had been with Sam for not listening to my suggestions. I was pretty close to grabbing my fishing pole and heading to the lake more than once!

I’ve told this story to many students over the years, both as a reminder to myself to be patient and so that they remember to be kind to themselves. Writing a memorable admissions essay is a process, and there’s a pretty good chance you won’t get it right on the first try. Challenge yourself to find your own “ordinary afternoon in Florida,” and see where it takes you. You might end up with an offer of admission to your top choice school just like Sam did!