Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Common Application Prompt #5

This article first appeared on GoLocalPDX.com on September 23, 2015.

The intention of this series is to show readers a sample of a good essay in response to each of the Common Application prompts. This essay is an actual college admission essay, written and submitted by a real student. It is followed by comments from admissions professionals about what makes this personal statement effective.
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
“Ew, what stinks?” Audrey screams.
My eyes comb through the thick foliage until they fall on a decomposing deer carcass replete with maggots and eager turkey vultures. I can’t believe my luck.
“Wow! Let’s go examine it. Who remembers what we learned about decomposers?” I ask the group, excitement evident in my voice.
When the screaming starts, I realize that I should have saved the carcass exploration for my afternoon group. I look back at Audrey, a scrawny eleven-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome. She is prone in the grass, shrieking as though she is being tortured.
I run back to her. “Hey, don’t worry, you can take a pass on the deer. I’ll draw you a cartoon mock-up so you can still learn some sweet facts and impress your classroom teacher.” The howling doesn't even waver. Okay, new strategy.
“Guess what? We’re having mac n’ cheese for lunch and chocolate chip cookies for dessert, and at soil field study this afternoon you will make some awesome face paint.” Still nothing.
“Audrey, we’re going to play a game called predator-prey right over here. Feel free to join us when you’re ready.” Ten minutes later, Audrey stumbles over to us, her tantrum finished, but our time together just beginning. She is going to be one of the ten sixth-grade girls staying in my cabin.
It’s 6:25am the next morning. Soon I will wake up my students, but for five minutes I marvel at where I am. For one week each semester, I leave my friends, family, and technology at home and travel, with my rain boots and smile in tow, to Outdoor School, home of the freshest air in the world. Every sixth grader in Oregon is gifted six days here to experience the outdoors while learning hands-on science. For these weeks, I become PiƱa, and my job is to be a role model, science teacher and friend to 200 sixth graders out in the forest. My alarm clock beeps; it’s 6:30.
“I’m alive, awake, alert, enthusiastic, whoo!” I sing to wake up my cabin.
Nine groggy girls zip out of sleeping bags while one remains in bed, seemingly lifeless.
“Audrey, it’s time to wake up. We are having field day this afternoon, and tonight at campfire we are performing our skit, but before we can have any of that fun I need you to get out of bed.” I know she can hear me, but she remains barricaded in her sleeping bag. I recall the conversation I had with my supervisor the night before.
(“I have a recalcitrant girl in my cabin who is impulsive and doesn’t follow instructions. Strategies like ‘I need’ statements and distractions aren’t working on her, so I would love some suggestions of new techniques.")
My supervisor suggested I try incentives, so I couple, “If you get up within five seconds, you can sleep five extra minutes tomorrow morning” with a personalized Audrey wake-up song and, to my delight, it works.  Audrey is out of bed. She refuses to get dressed, but she’s out of bed.
For the next five days, I spend all of my free time thinking up new ways to engage Audrey without triggering a melt-down. It’s a painful, yet effective trial-and-error process. Letting her draw how she’s feeling, for example, calms her down, but playing the human knot game with her cabinmates results in spinning and screaming. She drains every ounce of my energy, but I’m left feeling happily exhausted after we work through each of her lows and surprisingly refreshed after celebrating each of her highs.
Right before the students board the school bus home, Audrey runs up to me. "When I'm old like you, I'm coming back here to teach science. I think I'll be great." (Eli, Minerva Schools at KGI, Class of 2019)
Conor’s feedback: This essay shows a good deal of the author's personality and voice as she recounts her many attempts (some successful, even more unsuccessful) to be a good leader and role model for her young campers. She comes across as determined, caring, humble, and even a bit funny, all great qualities that colleges value.
Anna’s feedback: An accomplishment doesn’t need to be an award or a HUGE LIFE EVENT. We know you are just 17 or 18 years old; it’s OK that you haven’t cured cancer (yet). This essay shows an impactful moment for this student and it works. I see a young woman who loves science, is compassionate, and enjoys working with a wide variety of people.
Jodi’s feedback: Wow! This student took her grown-up role very seriously. She cared a lot about connecting with every child and rose to the formidable challenges she faced. She will adapt well to any situation, which is especially useful since she chose a college that will include living in seven countries over her four undergraduate years.
Conor O’Rourke is Senior Assistant Dean of Admission at Pomona College, which is also his alma mater. Contact Conor at: conor.orourke@pomona.edu
Anna Aegerter is the Director of West Coast Admission for Sarah Lawrence College. In her twenty year career, Anna has worked at Lewis & Clark College (her alma mater), Trinity University (TX), Lawrence University, and Pitzer College. She also was the Director of College Counseling for an independent school in Seattle before returning to Admission to work at Sarah Lawrence College. Contact her at: aaegerter@sarahlawrence.edu

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