One of CJ’s friends, Fanatical Planner, has already written a draft of her common app essay. Yesterday she sent me a copy and asked me for feedback.
FP thought I was qualified to read her essay because I once taught Freshman Composition (as a TA). That was during the last century, I reminded her, when there were completely different rules about comma usage. But she insisted that I read her essay, so I did.
It was brilliant. FP’s voice came through loud and clear. Her descriptions were vivid and memorable. By the time I had finished reading, I was almost moved to tears. I waited a minute, composed myself, then called the poor girl and told her to throw the whole thing out and start over. The reason? She had chosen to write about the latrine she built during her community service trip to Queztaltenango, Guatemala.
Unfortunately for FP (and her parents, who had spent $6000 for the experience), several of the admissions officers on our tour had singled out Guatemalan latrines as an essay topic to be avoided at all costs. One university representative said they had received so many Central American latrine stories that he imagined there were now more outhouses than bananas on the isthmus.
So, what is a good subject to write about? Did some research and discovered a book called "50 Successful Harvard Essays". A great find because you don’t even have to order the paperback; you can read the first composition for free on the Amazon website.
And the essay is about…get this: fixing a toilet in Costa Rica. The author, who attended a public school in New Jersey, writes candidly that, on the first day of his summer program in San José, he ate some black beans, then made his way into the ladies’ room because he was desperate and couldn’t find the men’s.
“I sat down and did what generally one does after eating a lot of beans. I finished up (remembering to throw the toilet paper in the wastebasket, as is done in Costa Rica to keep the pipes from clogging) and pulled the gold-plated handle. Nothing happened. Huh, that’s funny. Tried again. Nothing. Sh*t.”
The author goes on to describe how, thanks to innate plumbing skills he never knew he had, he was eventually able to fix the toilet. And that essay got him into Harvard. True, it was not 2008, the most difficult year for college acceptances in the history of the world. But the applicant successfully wrote about sh*t (with an asterisk no less) while thousands of dedicated latrine builders were rejected right and left from lower-tier schools.
What happened? One theory is that too many people read the Harvard essay book, triggering a flood of theses about baños in developing countries.
Or maybe merely building a latrine does not make you a compelling applicant, but stopping one up does.