Two high school seniors, college bound. One from an affluent school district on Long Island. The other from a small town nestled in the foothills of the Adirondacks. Both with stellar academic records, sufficiently proficient SAT and ACT scores, exemplary extracurricular activities, and abundant community service.

What distinguishes these two students, one from the other, in the eyes of the all and powerful college admissions officer at XYZ University?

Demographics, yes. All things being equal (which they seldom are), the edge and the admissions nod go to the smart kid from the small town, and not to the top performer from Long Island, viewed as a bright star among a galaxy of glowing suns. Alas, life is not fair. We have to deal with the hand we are given, and the island on which some of us are raised and schooled.

Hanging in the precarious balance, however -- that void between acceptance and rejection -- is not necessarily where you are (in either time or space), but rather, who you are.

On that great screen shot that is your college application, there is but one opportunity to truly shine, to stand far above the crowd, to give voice to the inner you beyond the grades, the scores, the rankings, and the lead role you played in the junior year dramatic production of The Iceman Cometh.

The college essay. Often the final arbiter in the admission decision process.

So, what makes for a winning essay?

Length? Ahh. Brevity is still the soul of wit. And pity the poor admissions officer who, reading your essay at 4:45 PM, had to digest some 100 other "My Experience As A Camp Counselor" or "Building A Habitat for Humanity in Honduras" writings before yours. Indeed, go for more than the minimum of 250 words suggested by the Common App, but please, no War and Peace treatise.

Depth? Who wouldn't want to read about obscure theories in astrophysics or the intricacies of foreign affairs that only a policy wonk could appreciate? [Then again, if you are applying for a specialized program that calls for a recitation of such knowledge, or you can otherwise make an essay about nanoparticles hurtling through an accelerator a fascinating read, hey, go for it.]

Keep it simple, so even the likes of The College Whisperer could understand. Keep it real. Write about what you know and who you are. Incorporate and elaborate upon your own life experiences. What will you bring to campus (aside from your entire wardrobe and a high def TV to be named later)? Why are you the perfect match for this college?

Add a touch of humor (shying away from the stand-up routine for which you are known in high school lunch rooms, far and wide), and a tad of pathos. Humble yet confident. Assured but not a braggart.

Show the world who you are, and who you hope to become as you go through your college career. Tell your story.

What to write about? No idea how to get started? Well, as the essay that follows demonstrates, the topic can be about almost anything and practically everything. [The College Whisperer wonders whether Jerry Seinfeld's application -- to Queens College -- contained an essay, like his television show, about nothing?] As long as the focus is you, your accomplishments, your goals, and the means you choose to take you from here to there.

You needn't be an Einstein -- or a Dale Earnhardt -- to write a successful essay. Just be you, and you will be fine!
- - -

Driven To Succeed

"Turn right, slower, slower, BRAKE, BRAKE!!" I tried to calm down, but the more he yelled, the more nervous I became. I felt my body break into a cold sweat and my hands begin to quiver against the wheel. As the laughter of my friends filled the car, and a worried look came across my instructor's face, I began to wonder if driving really was for me.

Driving became not only a challenge, but also a conquest in which I would not accept failure. I have never been one to settle for anything other than my best, and therefore, was determined to master the skill of driving.

Behind the wheel, I set my eyes on the road and my mind on driving. Practice makes perfect, so week after week I concentrated on becoming a better, more capable driver.

"With every privilege comes responsibility." The words of my father echoed in my head as I took one of my first steps into the world of adulthood. Knowing that I had others' lives in my hands, I took a more serious approach to being on the road. Now, with a renewed sense of obligation, my view of the world changed.

I learned that my father was right as he lectured me the day before. "Francyne, driving is just one of the many challenges you will face in life." Indeed it was; it was an opportunity for me to be on my own, to gain some independence (that was much deserved, I must say), and to accept responsibility for my own actions. 

Behind the wheel of a car, as along the road of life, you must be aware of your surroundings and be ready to respond appropriately under many circumstances, even those that may appear to be totally unfamiliar. Countless thoughts cluttered my head as I contemplated what having my license really meant. In the car I am not only liable for my own actions, I must be alert and responsive to the actions of those around me. When driving, I must take into account what the consequences may be if I don't adhere to the rules of the road.

In life, I can't just recklessly pursue my passions, without considering how my actions will affect those around me, as well as my own future. In the world, I must be aware and abide by the rules in order to avoid chaos. With good judgment and a sense of maturity, I was able to set out on the road.

"Wow, it's finally over," I thought to myself. After what seemed like years, I successfully completed Driver's Education. "I stuck with it and didn't give up, and look where I am now - I have my license," I said to my father as he gave me a hug of approval and acknowledged my accomplishment. Not only could I maneuver the car through the local streets, while resisting the urge to play bumper cars, I was able and secure enough to enter major roads and the Long Island Expressway. I passed my road test on my first attempt, and proved
  to myself that I have come a long way - measured not only in miles, but also in confidence.

Freedom does have a price; it's called responsibility! I am now ready to face all the challenges of the world, applying the brake, as necessary, and always ready to accelerate!

Happy writing!

- - -
Plan. Prepare. Prevail!

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