Oh, the lengths college-bound students -- and their angst-ridden parents -- will go to for that perfect college essay experience.

Sojourns to China. Second-seating surgeons in the operating theater. Cult-like 3-day application boot camps in Cambridge at $15,000 plus, not including room and board.

Oh my!

Check out The New York Times piece, For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers.

If it seems rather extreme to you to mingle with the Ming Dynasty in Beijing or to rediscover the Renaissance in Italy, all in the name of satisfying the Common App's charge to describe “a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you,” imagine how the resulting "personal statement" must mess with the pysche of that poor college admissions officer, whose summer travels took her no further than the campus dining hall for some middling Asian cuisine.

Whatever happened to the student who drew upon his or her own life experiences, as commonplace as they may appear on the surface, cultivating the ordinary into an extraordinary, compelling, motivating essay? Finding perspective, nuance, pathos, and even a touch of humor but a stone's throw from home, and a mere synapse away for one's own heart and soul.

Perhaps the most poignant thought in the entire Times' article came from Susan Warner, an independent college counselor. “Parents always ask, ‘What should my child do this summer to assist in the college application?’ ” Ms. Warner said. “I tell them it’s as significant to scoop ice cream as it is to build houses in a foreign country.”


And believe me, those essays on "how I spent two weeks in Costa Rica with Habitat for Humanity" are most frequently less endearing, embracing and, dare I say, genuine, than the "Cold hands, frozen yogurt -- A day in my life at Ralph's ices."

The feedback to the Times' story, letters on How to Make That College Essay Special, demonstrates that the well thought out, artfully composed essay comes more from within the context of the student's real life -- as mundane as that life may seem at the moment -- than from a manufactured, and often contrived and artificial experience.

Here's a brief sampling, excerpted from the Letters to the Editor::

My own summer jobs at stores and restaurants gave me insights and understandings that I would not trade for all the summer programs in Nanjing or Italy.

Brooklyn, New York

Instead of a trip to India or China, a few weeks as a volunteer addressing the struggles of 12th-grade students who cannot read, or listening to the stories of a fraction of the many homeless children in public schools, might bring the shock of recognition that drives all good writing.

Endwell, New York

Colleges are looking for intellectual curiosity and creativity; students can show this simply by taking classes voraciously, exploring their communities — yes, even through lifeguarding and scooping ice cream — and writing a smart, thoughtful essay that connects their ideas with the themes in their lives.

In essays, as in life, you can’t buy introspection, depth or open-mindedness just by taking a trip to China.

Scotch Plains, New Jersey

Sifting through stacks of stories about learning Mandarin in a month/navigating the Amazon/splicing genes, college admissions officers must long for the occasional comic sketch from a sharp observer who had a dull summer in an office stuffing envelopes.

Greenwich, Connecticut

Write on!

If you think that the best tales aren't woven from the ordinary, harken back to the iconic days of Seinfeld, a show that made its mark in episodic comedy based upon absolutely nothing.

Missed that slow boat to China this summer? No worries. Dollars to donuts, you've still got a fantastic college essay or two in the great travelogue of your mind! And remember, it's not just what you say, but how you say it!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of The College Whisperer.

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