I suspect we all are looking forward to seeing the backside of 2020 and would love nothing more than to be celebrating “good riddance” on New Year’s Eve with extended family or rowdy friends. Alas, a typical party would be a serious super-spreader, and we are warned we must keep apart. For many, this will be at once unusual and difficult. But not for me. For I will be where I always am, curled up with my laptop, alone, reading college essays.
I started my career in the admissions office of a small, selective liberal arts college, and after reading over two thousand essays, I moved on to grad school. I then landed a job teaching English in a private high school, where I was immediately snagged to do college counseling as well, as it was assumed, having read so many essays, I must know what a good one looked like.
A student’s first instinct seems always to be to philosophize in a boring, pedantic way about how he or she would make a Real Difference in the World; my job was beat that out of them. I’d give my standard advice: please don’t pontificate or philosophize—it puts your tired, put-upon readers right to sleep. Reject the My-Dad-Is-My-Hero topic and avoid at all costs the House-Building-in-Mexico-Epiphany essay. You may be earnest, but believe me, you are not unique. You are among countless Americans affluent enough to be able to travel to Tijuana or Tanzania. And maybe it has wrought a change in you. But like the beauty contestants’ answers in “Miss Congeniality”—when each hopes for World Peace–it may be worthy, but it’s oh-so-clichéd and will not win the up/down vote when read aloud to the Admissions Committee. Instead, it will flub.
With the pitter patter of student feet coming to my garret office, the years sped along. Because the most ambitious students were facing a January 1 deadline, they had to get my advice before the school closed for winter break. But then something new came along. Email. Word. Track Changes. Then poof, the electronically submitted application! Sigh. Instantly, my vacation days were interrupted by essays from the desperate (but inevitable) procrastinators. Thus for many years now, I have spent New Year’s Eve reading, suggesting, consoling, and cajoling as the clock ticks inexorably towards midnight, a sort of cyber-Cinderella knell of selective college admissions.
The topics vary immensely: one about the vegetarian who had witnessed the killing and stripping of a water buffalo by starving locals in Thailand who put every piece of the big beast to some use; one anticipating coming out as transgender at the next school assembly; and once a beautiful reflection that spiraled outwards from an oft-repeated quotation of an eccentric teacher—“you cannot not choose”; one about sneaking out of a camp cabin to curl up against driftwood and stare at the stars; one about a rivalry in sandcastle building contests—with an eight-year-old; One where a triplet inadvertently discovered the birth order that her parents had taken pains to conceal: would she tell her two siblings or honor her parents’ wishes? One about being dogged throughout high school by the nickname “the Commie” for having argued vociferously in class once about the importance of welfare. One about trying to impress the crew coach by rowing so hard that his boat of eight started going in circles before he learned to pull together with his mates.
It’s taken me years to see the common thread.
As I settle down on the couch to comment on the last stragglers’ essays, as my friends raise a glass staring at squares on Zoom, and the elicit fireworks start going off, I recognize the reason that I have embraced my lonely fireside job reading essays as the New Year is about to roll in. It is this: draft after draft, year after year, every essay has one thing in common: an indisputably hopeful outlook. Essay after essay describes something that has made a profound impact on the writer. These seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds are transitioning into adulthood. They have shared with me again and again the most intimate corner of their lives. They have shown me who they are. And yes, they want world peace. They all do. Yes, they have been touched to the core when they have witnessed poverty. How could they not be? They have begun to see their connection to the group. Their minds are opening. Their vision is positive and their hope is palpable.
And thus, at the end of this strangest of all years, it will be no hardship to be alone; for I will settle down, grab my laptop, and read.