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    The Zoologist's Guide to the College Essay

    A not-so-scientific look at the science of essay writing.

    Josh Johnson

    I'm no scientist, but it seems clear to me that eight out of nine college application designers were formerly employed as zoologists who studied amphibians. Perhaps I should explain my findings.

    It was my senior year in high school. I was concerned that if I didn't go to college, my parents would make me clean my room. The only thing that stood in the way was the college application. So I sat down with my lucky black pen, put my penmanship cap on and dug in.

    When you're ready to focus, find a place where you'll be able to relax without any distractions.

    As I began the application, I was faced with such daunting questions as Name and Marital Status. College, I thought, is merely a Telephone Number and Zip Code away.

    I was wrong. In reality, I was like the naïve frog placed in a pot of lukewarm water by malicious zoologists. Of course, we all know how this story ends. The heat gets turned up slowly, the cold-blooded amphibian's body temperature adjusts to the heat, and before you know it … boiled froggy! In the same way, college applications are designed to begin simply and end … with an ESSAY.

    For those who already suffer from nightmares about endangered amphibians, this story may be frightening. But let me assure you that I made it out alive and attended—and loved—an essay-requiring college. With this in mind, I would like to share some helpful observations that could transform your essay-writing experience from boiled frog to Prince Charming.

    History of the Essay

    I wish I had a corn dog for every time I've heard someone say, "If I could just get my hands on the guy who invented the essay, I'd …" This anger is entirely misplaced.

    In reality, the French writer who invented the essay in the late 16th century, Michel de Montaigne, has often been misunderstood. Many people think he was a member of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But far from being a "hero in a half shell," Montaigne was a writer and thinker who invented the essay primarily to express himself. He said many things in his life (real quote: "What do I know?"), but he never once said that his invention should be used for college applications. Therefore, he is not to blame for your college-application angst. (As we have already discovered, you can blame the zoologists for that.)

    Application essay-writers do have something in common with Montaigne, however. The French man named his invention essai, which is French for "I forgot to use my spellchecker." Actually, essai is a French word (Old French spelling) meaning "trial" or "attempt." So while he's separated from today's American college applicants by 400 years and the Atlantic Ocean, Montaigne understood exactly what application essays are: a trial for writers.

    Ready … Set …

    When I first sat down to write my application essay, one thought filled my mind: I wonder if Fruit of the Loom really makes quality underwear, or if their main product is oversized produce costumes. If your mind wanders this badly, it might be wise to consider relaxing in front of ESPN for an hour and "clearing the cobwebs" before beginning to write.

    When you're ready to focus, find a place where you'll be able to relax without any distractions. Environment is critical.

    Ready … set … don't start writing. First, you should brainstorm. This is an important step that keeps your essay from following the same organizational structure as your school locker. Then wrangle those random thoughts into a concise outline. An outline is an effective tool to ensure your sentences flow like the Mississippi River rather than spout aimlessly like Old Faithful.

    It is during the brainstorming process that an important tip applies: Be honest. The temptation in writing an application essay is to impress the admissions counselor who reads it, but this shouldn't be done at the expense of the truth.

    I remember the essay I wrote when I applied to the school I attended. The question asked something about my relationship with God. I recall wanting to begin: "As a 4-year-old, I held crusades at my preschool and started the national organization, Toddlers Observing The Sacraments (TOTS). I passed legislation to have our snacks renamed Billy Graham Crackers. …"

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