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Jewish Journal

College Essay:  Finding the ‘why’ makes it your own

by Jonah Lowenfeld

November 23, 2010 | 1:40 pm

As the director of academic and college guidance at YULA Girls High School, Jessica Pashkow has been helping this year’s seniors and their parents through the college application process for the better part of the past year. And with deadlines looming in the coming weeks and months, essays are at the forefront of many of the students’ minds.

The dreaded personal statement: Students have just 500 words, sometimes 1,000, to stand out among thousands — often tens of thousands — of applicants. And when it comes to Pashkow’s students, based on their experiences alone, it can be hard to distinguish them from one another.

“My students are going to the same camps; they’re going to the same summer programs; they’re doing the same volunteer work; they’re in the same activities,” Pashkow said. And since many of them feel like “normal” kids, who haven’t had too many unique hardships, finding an application essay topic that will set them apart can feel like a challenge.

When it comes to crafting college application essays, the YULA girls’ experience is not so different from what every applicant faces: How to seem special when writing for readers who have read about almost everything already.

“I think kids spend a lot of time focusing on: ‘How can I tell them something they’ve never heard before?’ ” said Becky Chassin, associate director of admissions at the University of Southern California. “That’s not going to happen. They’re high school students. They’ve had a lot of the same experiences. We expect that.”

Jewish kids often share even more in common with their peers than some other groups, to the point that certain themes recur frequently in application essays — trips to Poland, trips to Israel, summer camp. Chassin has read good (and not so good) essays on all of these topics, and she understands why students choose to write about them. “A lot of times those [experiences] have been transformative for them,” Chassin said. “Those have been the times in their young lives when they’ve said, ‘I feel like I’ve changed, I feel like I’ve grown, I feel like I’ve matured.’ ”

Pashkow, who worked at USC’s office of admission before coming to YULA, doesn’t necessarily try to steer her students away from these subjects. “It’s fine for them to talk about those things, because that’s what their experience is,” she said. “But it’s the way in which they talk about those experiences.”

By way of illustration, Pashkow mentioned an essay she had read recently, in which one student wrote about a summer program that took her to death camps in Poland and then to Israel. “Her essay then became about the Holocaust, and about how we have to be vigilant that it never happens again,” Pashkow said. “I’m fine with them writing about anything, as long as they’re keeping in mind that what they’re writing about has to reveal something about themselves,” Pashkow said. (She told that student to pick another topic.)

Chassin said that successful essays focus less on what happened and more on what she calls “the why.” “Why is this the thing that you need to tell me?” Chassin said. “What about this experience was personal to you?”

Pashkow summed up this idea — that essays on similar topics can still encapsulate the unique essence of a particular person — in a single image.

“If the parents were to come into a room, and there are a hundred essays spread out end-to-end on the table, I want the parents to be able to walk up to the table and be able to identify their student’s application,” she said. “They should be able to see that essay and know by what it says that that’s their kid’s essay.”

With a bit of creative thinking, even the most common experiences can make for good essays. Instead of writing about how “seeing Masada at sunrise was amazing,” Chassin said, “talk about how it was hard. Maybe you got up to the top and it didn’t feel so amazing, if that was your experience. That it was different than you thought it would be.”

Pashkow encourages some of her students to think even further outside the traditional college essay box. “Sometimes I want them to buck tradition and say, ‘I’m going to write about my trip to the grocery store, or about my feet,’ ” Pashkow said. “I think that there are ways to be creative, but to still be respectful of the process — and have the end result be what you want it to be.”

Chassin had one more piece of advice for students and their parents: “Relax,” she said. “It’ll be OK.”

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