College essays: spiders, failures, accomplishments…and hope for the future.

The bane of every college applicant: the admissions essay.

by Maggie Shea, Writing Center coordinator

How would you approach an unusual writing prompt? Consider these:

      • Tell us about Spiders.
      • What is square one, and can you actually go back to it?
      • Consider something in your life you think goes unnoticed and write about why it’s important to you.

Interesting questions, but hard to know where to begin, right? Many high school seniors are tackling these very questions right now, thinking deeply about spiders, musing on square onewith a friend, or examining their lives to find that perfect unnoticed element. All three are actual prompts on 2016 college applications: the first is one of two choices for the University of Richmond, the second is an option from a list of five equally quirky prompts for University of Chicago, and the last is required for all applicants to University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Each year, U Chicago solicits essay prompts from current students and alumni. They choose five uncommon questionsto include on their application supplement. Some gems from the past include “So where is Waldo, really?” and “What’s so odd about odd numbers?”  One of my favorites is “So, how do you feel about Wednesdays?” The University says they hope to learn how students think–and how well they write.

At the Minnetonka High School Writing Center, we are honored to be part of the college essay process for many seniors. The prompts we see are often less eclectic than the trio listed above. Most questions ask Who are you?in one form or another. The Common Application, used by over 700 colleges, requires students to choose from five questions. Imagine what colleges learn about applicants from their responses to these two Common App prompts:

      • The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
      • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

In college essay writing conferences, we listen to studentsideas and ask questions to help focus their responses. They work through multiple revisions, refining sentences until the story represents something essential about themselvesin 650 words, or sometimes 500.

Every fall, we are inspired by these young writers on the verge of their adult lives. They write stories about challenge and resilience; passion for nature, music, or art; ideas for making the world a better place; love of family and dedication to friends. They can be dead serious and downright hilarious. Parents, grandparents and teachers out there: you are the subject of many college essays! Students value the lessons youve taught them. And students: hearing your stories and working with you gives us much hope for the future.


Bridging the Gap

Gap Year

by Reid Johnson, class of 2015

Last year I graduated from MHS. At the start of August, a few weeks before most of my friends started packing their belongings for college, I began stuffing some clothes, books, and notebooks into a backpack—the backpack from which I’d live out of for the next twelve months. Nine months ago I began a gap year, deferring my admission to the U of M to give myself a little time to do whatever I saw fit… a little adventure in between two big blocks of education.

I looked at the big future-college collage outside of the media center last June. Out of the roughly 700 kids who graduated with me only eight were under the label ‘gap year.’ So deferring college is not the norm. But the coolest things in life never are the norm anyway. Writing as a former MHS student, I know how our status-quo culture expects kids to move as a herd rather blindly down the path out the doors of high school directly onto the campus of a college.

I did not consider a gap year as being a legitimate option for me until about the start of my junior year. But even then I had no idea how to go about it, my perception being that all kids who do this type of thing had previous connections, clear goals, and specific expectations before taking action. Because no one, well-marked route exists I thought it was rather inconceivable that I could do something so daring. A good way to start is asking for a sheet in the College and Career Center and googling volunteer/intern programs or sweet places to travel. In Europe, gap years are much, much more common than in Minnetonka. People are doing this, and they are having the experiences of lifetimes.

Each person is unique, and each person should deliberately make unique choices depending on their personal passions… so for sure gap years are not the best choice for everyone, but gap years can/should be considered as a real and reachable path.

The freedom is huge. Education is fantastic, but it demands more time than a ¾-time job. Without a school schedule I’ve rediscovered the lost art of free reading, worked on a little novel, researched what I’m interested in, all on my own time through my own motivation. I’m not special, but I think it is a special chance for a 19 year-old to have so much personal time to devote to developing the way I work. Passion is something worth finding and cultivating, and gap years give us the chance to find the time that system-based education doesn’t provide.

Right now I’m writing this blog snippet sitting in the jungle of southeastern Peru. There is a pet monkey making faces at me from across the hallway and currently it is a little hard to concentrate while flocks of macaws and a stunning sunset slip past outside my screen door. It is a crazy neat deal being in the ‘real world’ traveling alone, walking into a hotel to book a room for the night, buying a plane ticket, crossing a national border, bartering for lunch at a market in rural Colombia. For the first time I am in a situation where I can take full control of my choices and full responsibility for their consequences. It is sometimes scary, potentially dangerous, often lonely, completely unpredictable, and always an adventure.


A market in Huancayo, a mountain city of Peru

For six months I taught English in a small Christian school in a gang controlled community of Tegucigalpa, Honduras as a missionary. For the last few months I have traveled solo around South America. Before this year I did not know the alphabet nor the colors in Spanish, and now I am able to have pretty natural conversations and translate for missionary groups. I’m not special, and I am not a courageous person (the hardest part even now is working up my nerve to talk to a stranger). I am simply convinced that the quickest way to learn, and the realest way to live, is to jump in, sink or swim style.

I think taking a gap year was a spectacular decision. I’m not selling anything, I just get excited about finding opportunities like these and so I’m passing on my story to you. Get out there, make memories, and make an impact.



Far North: finding happiness on a rough, remote journey

High school seniors have a lot on their minds these days: closing out one life chapter and figuring out the landscape of the next. At Minnetonka High School’s Writing Center, we are honored to work with many seniors on college essays. Today, with permission from the writer, we feature a college essay that stands out for its vivid detail and important message. Thanks John!


College essay by John Obermiller

Last summer, my friends and I spent a month canoeing in Manitoba, honing our backcountry and whitewater skills. But this year Tom, Joe, Matt, and I went North. Not just north to the provinces, but north to the barrens of Nunavut Canada, where the taiga gives way to tundra, ice, and the massive lakes and rivers of the Arctic Drainage.

We rode north in a van, our canoes and gear strapped to an old trailer. Several days later, we flew out of Points North Saskatchewan, and arrived at Ennadai Lake, our starting point. A mere two days in we were forced to stop by ice that had shifted on the partially frozen lake, blocking the entrance to the Kazan. A day later the ice had moved enough so we could just barely paddle around it.  We continued and made good time on the Kazan, even stopping to practice our whitewater skills. Our luck didn’t hold. A front surged out of the north, creating wind so strong it pushed our canoes, loaded with three hundred pounds of gear and supplies, back up a set of rapids. This would become a theme of our trip.

Wind bound. Icebound. Playing cards. Pointless arguments. Nerves fraying in close quarters. The frequent days when we had to stop passed agonizingly slowly. When the weather cooperated we paddled furiously to make up time, routinely canoeing for over thirteen hours a day and covering thirty-five plus miles on flat water. We portaged around a canyon, portaged for two days across a watershed. The days under the midnight sun blurred together.

When we finally got to Baker Lake First Nation, our endpoint, we were tired and somewhat irritated with each other. But when we actually left, there was a silent realization that it was over, not just the difficulties, but the great moments as well: when we found the Kunwak River had sliced through a glacier, creating a surreal canyon of ice; when we camped on the rim of a canyon we would later portage, and saw the monstrous Kazan falls. And the wildlife: herds of muskoxen, arctic swans and peregrine falcons, even a wolverine.

Few people realize how much of our wonder and happiness comes from what we go through to reach our goal. Clichéd as it may be, it really is the journey, not the destination. I doubt any tourist will feel the way Jon Wesley Powell felt when he ran the Colorado River down the Grand Canyon in the 19th century, not knowing what lay ahead. People are the sum of their experiences, and difficult ones build us the most. We go on these adventures because everything we earn-sports victories, degrees, jobs-is only meaningful to us because we have built its value with our struggle.

Afraid of a question

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

By Ali Goldberg, Senior Writing Coach

Fall of Senior Year: college application time. Whether you are of the mindset to get them done and out of the way, or always banking on tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, all high school seniors must deal with this grueling process at some point. For me at least, that time is any day but today.

Now, it isn’t the tedious, pain-staking general information slots that most prospective applicants hope to avoid, it’s the ominous, foreboding College Essay. The single, 500 word paper that strikes fear into all high school seniors. Any time it comes up, it’s as if everyone runs for cover, scrambling for a hiding place or a new topic of conversation. In fact, I’d say that any mention of ‘college’ at all has the power to clear a room of any high school students. With this instinctive fear of college applications and the essay, the idea of simply starting on something so huge can feel impossible. In addition, the passive aggressive reminders about applying before it’s too late from parents and counselors only adds to the seemingly insurmountable barrier of the college essay. Every time my mother says to me, “Oh honey, just wanted to remind you to get a move on, I’m not worried or anything, it’s just good practice,” or something along those lines, my permanent response is, “The more you ask, the less I want to do it. MOM.”

But even with the motivation to get started, I have to ask myself: what even is the college essay? I mean, the last time I wrote a paper about myself instead of an analysis or research paper was in 8th grade; I wrote a narrative about being trapped in the bathroom at Joey Nova’s – an absolutely riveting tale I can assure you. How are we meant to return to a writing style that has been basically obsolete in our education since middle school?

So, with the almost foreign departure from ‘traditional’ high school writing back to personal narration and the rest of your life seemingly hanging in the balance, it’s easy to let the college essay become some unconquerable beast – the fire-breathing dragon guarding the college campus. However, if any one of these questions came up outside of the application setting, the essay becomes nothing more than a getting-to-know-you prompt. In the end, the essay is a chance to be something more than a flat, lifeless list of grades, test scores and activities; it’s a chance to share a bit of who you are.

Now, even with the fortitude to begin the conquest, how does one choose what to write about? Many seniors, including myself, inevitably run into the quandary of ‘I don’t have anything interesting to write about.’ Thankfully, college admissions aren’t a competition of who has the most exciting and exotic life because I for one would never get into college. The important part of the college essay is the voice – your voice. No matter what the subject, the writing must be alive with you and your personality, the small, intricate details only you can express about yourself. This ability to convey a piece of who you are proves more to colleges than any singular experience.

With this in mind, the most important thing to remember for those seniors currently working (or not working) on college essays is to take it at face level – don’t let it intimidate you. As I bid all of you adieu, I now set pen to paper on my own essay, no longer afraid of a question.