An essay on my college essay, in 645 words (the word limit for the Common Application Essay is 650).
"I can't do this." I stared at the blank page underneath the final question on the Middlebury College application form.
It was December 1988 and I was almost done with college applications. I had applied to Amherst, Tufts, and Colby, all of which requested essays in answer to specific questions. For Colby's assignment, "Discuss a favorite quotation," I had written an essay on the quote, "It is foolish to fear that which you cannot avoid." It was an opportunity to brag: to write about my nervousness taking tests or before stepping on stage as the lead in the school play. I was ranked first in my class and had a stack of academic and Best Contribution awards for cross-country running, Nordic skiing, and drama.
But Middlebury's question rocked me with fear—fear that I could not avoid if I wanted to apply to this school. And I did. I had just visited the campus and loved the gray stone buildings, the chapel on the hill, the vast library where I imagined myself in front of a sunny window, happily doing my homework.
"What have we not asked you already that is important for us to know about you?" the application asked. "Please elaborate."
Weren't my achievements enough? I had glowing recommendations from my Latin and Math teachers. I studied Japanese the previous summer on a scholarship to St. Paul's Advanced Studies Program. I danced lead parts in productions of a local dance theater. What else did they need to know?
At that time it was hard to look at my life without seeing difficulties I had little interest in confronting. I didn't know who my real father was. My stepfather, who had been with my mother and I since first grade, had become increasingly absent. He wanted to move us to California so he could mine for gold. My mother insisted that we stay in New Hampshire so that I could graduate from high school. Extracurricular activities were part of my strategy to keep myself out of the tension-filled house. The house, which my stepfather had built, lacked a toilet. I sought approval, and I didn't approve of the current state of my family, much less the plumbing situation.
"James, can you help?" My former cross-country teammate had done a post-graduate year and was home on break from college, which meant he had succsessfuly gone through the application process not once, but twice. "I don't know what to write about for Middlebury."
"You've traveled a lot, haven't you?" he asked. He remembered that I was on the team when I was in 8th grade and reappeared my sophomore year.
"Yes. Freshman year I was in California. I lived in Florida, Arkansas, and Arizona too. We traveled in an RV."
"Where did you go to school?" he asked. I rarely talked about my itinerant past.
"I did home school. Freshman year it was independent study, but before that my mother taught me."
"Bingo! There's your story. It's perfect, because it's about your education."
He was right. I had often told my story to people I met on our travels, but three years in a row at one school had made me complacent about my younger years. It took an outsider to ask the questions that would provide perspective on my life.
Four months later, I received an acceptance letter from Middlebury. Because our income was so low and I was from the first generation of my family to attend college, they waived the loan requirement.
After I arrived on campus, the admissions office sent me a brochure targeting students from small schools. I was one of eight students featured, and the profile proved that my essay was truly the differentiating factor in my acceptance. With the benefit of James' help, "I can't" led me right back to the chair in front of that sunny library window.