NEWPORT, R.I. – An essay about college essays, written by Brian Shanley from his perspective as associate dean of admissions at Salve Regina, has been re-printed in publications across the country, most recently in the Spring 2012 edition of The Journal of College Admission, the national publication of the Association for College Admission Counseling.
In his piece, Shanley poignantly shares his insights into the lives and the emotions of young adults as they work their way through the college application process. The essay has also appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Washington Examiner, Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.), Daily Item (Lynn, Mass.), Providence Journal and Newport Daily News.
Following is Shanley’s essay in its entirety:
College application essays run the gamut
Of the entire application process, it’s the essay that generates the most fear from college-bound students. Ignored during the summer months, obsessed over in the fall, the essay doesn’t fret. Instead, it waits patiently in the corner of every room of the house until it finds its way into words.
Last year I read 557 essays. This year will be similar. I read each and every line of every essay. For the writer and the reader it can be both daunting and haunting. Some will be funny (“Top 10 Things You Need to Know Growing Up a Girl in an All-Male Household”; No. 1-How to get out of a headlock.”), some lame (“I’m like a Cupcake”), some overstated (“Dance (insert any sport/activity) is my Life”), some of questionable taste (“One Young Man’s Goal: To Urinate in All 50 States”), and then there are the ones that make you push back your chair…and slowly shake your head.
A sample of young lives lived:
Devotion and grace: The Common Application requests students list their activities; a resume of sorts. Typically “band”, “theater” or “volleyball” appear in the space provided. Not always though. One young man wrote, “Staying home to care for my terminally ill father.” That’s what he did after school. I emailed wishing him well during those difficult times. Later that day, after school ended, he replied, “Thanks for your kind thoughts, my father passed away last week.” I sat and wondered if he was home. Was he alone?
Simplicity: One high school senior has lived with her grandmother her entire life due to her own parents’ addictions and abandonment. She is so proud of and thankful for her grandmother. There was just one problem; she never had a bed to sleep in. Later, she attended an overnight on Salve’s campus. Most students anticipate a big night out, hopefully a party or two. When asked the highlight of her visit, you guessed it. “Sleeping in a bed. I slept great.” She didn’t care it was someone else’s bed. It was a bed and that was good enough.
Courage: A daughter of a small town politician described the experience of her father as both a personal and public figure. At home the father was an abusive alcoholic, hitting everyone in sight; in town he was greeted with enthusiasm and smiles. She wrote, “Each time I see someone shake his hand or pat him on the back, a little bit of me dies.” One day she confessed all this to her guidance counselor who now stands by her side---as does the truth.
Resiliency: At ten years old she witnessed her father murder her mother. You read that right. The mother now gone forever, the father for a very, very long time. For 6 years she was “fine”, keeping it all inside. Then one day she couldn’t get out of bed. And she wouldn’t for a long time. But she does now and looks forward to someday living in a college dorm. I hope I am graced with the opportunity to help her move in one mild September day.
Humility: A young woman recounted her family’s tradition of donating to the Toys for Tots Christmas program. Her family was by no means well-to-do, but her parents always believed in helping others. On Christmas she visited her new boyfriend. They were getting to know each other while watching his younger brothers enjoy their toys. Later her boyfriend related he had never received Christmas toys when young. “The only reason my brothers have them is because of Toys for Tots.” She left the room, found a quiet place, sat down and began to cry. She wrote, “In this world there are so many things I know nothing about.” How beautifully humble.
Wisdom: One 17 year old wrote, “I have not lived fully yet, but there are two lessons I have learned: life goes on, and life is what you make of it.” She wrote of the economic unraveling which forced her family to move from home to hotel to homeless shelter. “Although I thought it was the worst thing that could happen to me…it actually turned out to be one of the most interesting.” How few of us could call such a free-fall “interesting”? All this wisdom from a life not yet fully lived.
After all that has happened, these “kids” find something; a belief or a simple hope that things will somehow get better. They move, not always at the pace they had hoped or the direction they foresaw, but they keep moving. Events produced their falls, character caused them to rise again.
I’m not sure what all of this means. I do know, however, that every person has a story and that I have much to learn. And that is why I read every line of every college essay; because in the end, there are so many things I know nothing about.