Seniors’ college essays touch the heart

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Darien, 06/03/11--Hinsdale South graduating seniors throw their caps in the air after receiving their diplomas during their commencement ceremony on Friday. |Joel Wintermantle~for Sun-Times Media

Of the entire college-application process, it’s the essay that generates the most fear for college-bound students.

Ignored during the summer, 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 is similar. I read every essay. 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. Number 1: How to get out of a headlock.”), some lame (“I’m like a Cupcake”), some overstated (“(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 slowly shake your head.

Consider:

†Devotion and grace: The Common Application requests that 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 him, wishing him well during those tough times.

Later that day, after school ended, he replied, “Thanks for your kind thoughts, my father passed away last week.” I wondered whence he was sending his email. Was he home? Alone?

†Simplicity: One high school senior lived with her grandmother her entire life because of her own parents’ addictions and abandonment of their daughter. She was 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 Regina University’s campus, in Newport, R.I. Most students anticipate a big night out, hopefully a party or two. When asked for the highlight of her visit, she said: “Sleeping in a bed. I slept great.” She didn’t care that 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 being both a personal and public figure to her. 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.”

†Resiliency: At 10, she witnessed her father murder her mother. You read that right. The mother was gone forever and her father for a very, very long time. For six years she was “fine,” keeping it all inside. Then one day she couldn’t get out of bed . . . and she couldn’t for a long time. She’s out of bed now and looks forward to someday living in a college dorm. I hope that 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 that 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, 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 that 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 many 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 in the direction they foresaw, but they keep moving. Events produced their falls; character caused them to rise again.

So I read every line of every college essay because there are so many things I know nothing about.

Brian Shanley is director of admissions at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I.

Scripps Howard News Service

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