Oberlin Blogs

Application time!

November 18, 2009

Tess Yanisch ’13

Hey everyone out there--it's time to get those applications in the mail! NOW!

Okay, I'm jumping the gun by about a month. Seriously, however, the sooner you get things out the better. You never know when a freak snowstorm might strike and separate you from the people writing your letters of rec right before the deadline (this happened to me, no joke). If you haven't even thought about applications yet, I suggest you begin drafting essays over Thanksgiving and scouting out teachers from various disciplines who see your genuine talent and sparkle to write your letters of recommendation.

You've probably read all the books and College Board tips and trolled College Confidential for tips--if not, well, try it! College Confidential is a great source. So is the Oberlin Hopefuls Facebook Group. Both places have current Oberlin students answering questions and let you meet other applicants. College Confidential has an advantage in that you can talk to parents on the forums too and compare with previous years' applicants, as well as get into cross-college comparisons. We don't do that so much on the Facebook group, because it's Oberlin-specific, but that means that you can get more focused information if you're sure about Oberlin.

Anyway, you probably know most of the tricks of applying already, so I'm not going to repeat them here (unless, of course, you want me to; leave a comment down at the bottom and I'll get to it next week). I am here to give you the benefit of my own application experiences.

First off, don't apply to eleven different colleges. Please. Just don't. (Even if two of them have no application fees if you apply online.) It isn't worth your time unless it's a pretty dang serious contender. Similarly, limit yourself to ONE Midwestern-writing-friendly college. (I shouldn't have bothered with Kenyon and Grinnell.)

Second, don't be afraid to have fun. This is one place where applying all over the place helped me, I think. I love writing, and I got to the point where I could bang out a decent essay on why I would be a great student for X and X would be a good school for me ("while being insightful, amusing, and genuine, spill your guts in 250 words or less--on your mark, get set, GO!"), but it got boring and disingenuous after a while.

So when one school gave me a 14-line limit, I wrote them a sonnet.

That was the first acceptance I got back.

Third, the "What else should we know about you?" box on the Common App is your friend. I wrote several short paragraphs about myself in a Word document which I imported (in general, don't use the Common App's boxes--you can be much longer on your own paper. The Common App cuts you off with "Character Limit Exceeded" and it's very frustrating). It wasn't an essay and the little paragraphs didn't flow together: they were just windows into who I am. I firmly believe in being honest in applications. It may have been a bit of an information overload for the poor application readers, but I tried to keep it funny. It can't have bugged them too much, either--they let me in, didn't they?

Fourth: While I cannot guarantee that it will be helpful, I can give you an example of the essays of one admitted student (me). I hope these help to inspire you in your own application-writing adventures!

This was my main Common App essay (prompt #6: "Whatever the heck else you want to write about, kid"). It went through a few tiny revisions between colleges as they had different application dates, so this may not be the exact version Oberlin got, but any changes would be very, very minor.

Common Application Essay, Prompt #6

Many people claim their lives have been molded by their religious beliefs or spirituality. My own claim is slightly more complex: I developed my own form of spirituality, inspired by my deep admiration of the themes and values of fantasy literature.

My family is not connected with any organized church. Besides going to Sunday school with my cousins a handful of times (we have a very religious extended family), I have no exposure to formal religion--but a lot of exposure to books. Perhaps it's true, then, that humans have an innate, irrepressible desire to believe in something more, because as early as kindergarten I began to experiment with beliefs garnered from stories.

I think I knew that C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia were based on Christian theology, which made them a perfect foundation for my fledgling spirituality. The themes of loyalty, sacrifice, and redemption, which I partly understood on their own merits, gained power from the magical setting. (Besides, I loved the big lion. He was nice.)

A few years later, my parents introduced me to what they expected to be a fun, gripping adventure story and what turned into, for me, the framework of my childhood spirituality--a wild ride of love, loyalty, fate, duty, and soul-stakes swordplay. I am referring, of course, to George Lucas's original Star Wars trilogy. Fascinated by the notion of an all-encompassing, life-generated Force, and the idea that one could, if properly trained, tap into it, I promptly began a regime of self-education. I was incredibly serious in my endeavors and spent long recesses perched atop the monkey bars with my friends, half-laughing, half-earnest, trying to levitate pebbles. One day, when one of these friends casually said, "It's just a movie," I banished him from our Jedi Club for two recesses. Nine-year-old justice is swift and harsh--even when tempered by Jedi wisdom!

With Jedi mind tricks and lightsabers came the dictates of the Jedi Order: to use power only for good, never to strike in anger, to maintain peace and justice. These movies, and the ideas they presented, informed not only my spiritual but also my political beliefs--my passion for justice and identification with underdogs can be traced back to the Rebel Alliance. For three years, my burgeoning consciousness focused around these ideals.

In fifth grade, I discovered The Book of Night with Moon by Diane Duane, set in a world in which magic functions through written and spoken words--a powerful attraction for a budding writer. The notion of word-powered magic struck a deep, resonant chord within me, for here was a way I knew I could affect the Universe. Like the wizards in the story, I was nerdy, a bit of a loner, and already skilled with words. Their examples gave me both the affirmation I needed to navigate my world with quiet optimism and the empowerment I needed to feel I could contribute to the Universe. Other elements of Duane's tale attracted me as well, especially the idea that evil is not necessarily absolute. The creator of evil in her books manifests in different forms, fighting on both sides in the battle between light and dark.

Now, though I still utilize the symbols and motifs of fantasy in my spiritual thinking, I have broadened my explorations to include real religions, at least through Joseph Campbell's writings. I am sometimes unsure if there is any personified Good or Evil in the universe, if such things are externally imposed or arise from human actions and a sort of collective karma. If there are gods, I generally conclude, they're creators, not babysitters--life has to deal with itself on its own.

But there's something incredibly compelling about the image of a young warrior fending off darkness with a shining sword, a well-chosen word.

The pen is not mightier than the sword; the pen is the sword, the sword of thought, and thought is the sword of life.

The obligatory "Why Oberlin?" question. Confession: this is one of the ones where I just banged out an essay after looking through pamphlets and Wikipedia.

From what you have learned about Oberlin College, why have you chosen to apply? What do you believe you will contribute to the Oberlin community, academically and personally?

I'm a creative, witty, liberal geek with a deep love for literature, free speech, and individualism. As such, I'm deeply interested in Oberlin College, which seems to welcome and encourage both dedication and experimentation in its student population. The Experimental College, for instance, sounds like a lot of fun; perhaps I could run a class on social themes in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels or learn Klingon. Furthermore, a college that has co-ops instead of fraternities and sororities seems like a place where I'd fit in quite nicely. The social involvement and responsibility of Oberlin's students impresses me, as does its dedication to sustainability.

As an aspiring fantasy writer, I hope to work on "Spiral," the sci-fi and fantasy literary magazine on campus. Beyond that, however, I want to get experience with social activism (beyond working for an underground school newspaper), meet and learn from interesting people, and hone my understanding of different cultures and my writing skills. In short, I seek an educational experience that not only enhances my factual knowledge but also broadens my view of the world.

--Taking an ExCo? Check! Published in Spiral? Check! Living in a co-op? Mmm...no. (But Barnard is AWESOME!)

Next, the Common App "short answer" prompt (no way of getting around the length limit on this one, which bothered me to no end!). Determined to get started on applications early, I wrote it at the end of the summer, hence its focus on, well, summer.

This past summer, a small group of teenagers, myself included, collaboratively created a non-school-affiliated newspaper. We sought an outlet for muckraking, creative writing, and free speech. The Viking Underground's first two issues have been well-received by parents, students and even school district officials. My inaugural article, a spotlight on Banned Books Week and Curtis' [my high school] own brush with banning, ran on the front page.

Previous attempts to revive the official school paper had failed, largely due to funding issues, and a group of geeky, quietly rebellious intellectuals attended the preliminary Underground interest meeting. The more devoted of us met regularly over the summer or communicated on an online forum, posting and editing articles. We are a diverse and interesting group: topics of discussion at our meetings and publication parties range from politics to Star Trek to guacamole, and our numbers include two atheists, a Mormon, a songwriter, and a Ron Paul supporter.

Finally, the "Additional Info" paragraph-stream. I've taken out some paragraphs because this post is getting pretty long:

With all my activities (swimming, the newspaper, Knowledge Bowl, Youth Council, numerous A.P. classes), it would be easy to neglect my family and live in my own private world of to-do lists and homework. However, I have managed to strike a balance between my peer-group commitments and my duty to, and huge affection for, my family. We eat supper together 99% of the time and talk about more than just scheduling; I recently took my mom out for dinner and we had a wonderful conversation. I also try to spend time with my little brother every day; he is fun and interesting, and he possesses a surprisingly sharp wit. We talk, play catch, engage in forty-minute-long Uno duels, or play spies, using walkie-talkies and codes to thwart the evil plans of the family cat to take over the world.

I tend to lead a quiet life, walking, reading, and writing in my (currently, quite limited) downtime. I hope it's evident from my writing samples, but I am a gifted writer--I attended the Kenyon Review Young Writers' Program this summer, and I have begun a novel that takes a Jane-Austen-style plot into a Star-Trek-style setting. I'm creative and humorous, and I enjoy--and seem to have a knack for writing--humor and satire, especially when it gives me a chance to poke fun at myself. I'm a very strange person, and I'm the first to admit it.

Until fairly recently, my volunteering experience was limited to many one-time events rather than ongoing projects; having no church affiliation made finding a community-service network difficult. I pitched in willingly whenever I found an opportunity, however: helping run an Alex's Lemonade Stand for children with cancer, assisting with food drives through Honors Society, and selling fireworks with the local Lion's Club. In the December of my junior year I discovered the University Place Youth Council and joined it. Consisting of civic-minded teenagers, it provides me with structured, regular opportunities for community service and planning.

In my sophomore year, after swim season ended, I decided to try expanding my horizons: I took on a job tutoring at a nearby intermediate school two days a week, joined Knowledge Bowl, and tried the track team. Though it was at a very inconvenient time, the job was my first commitment, and as such I honored it above the others. This made me miss nearly every Knowledge Bowl match and track meet. I attended all the practices of each, however, because I didn't tutor on the practice days. I discovered a lot about myself through this period of experimentation: I like working with children, I can handle a job, I love the atmosphere of Knowledge Bowl, and track isn't for me. Accordingly, the next year I threw myself whole-heartedly into Knowledge Bowl, and if tutoring had been at a more convenient time, I would have done that again as well.

In addition to swimming well for the Curtis High School team (qualifying for the district meet in the 100 yards breaststroke!), I also scream well. Over the years, I have perfected what my mother calls a "train yell": a long, low, loud note that my teammates swear they can hear underwater. Though it's been known to cause my brother headaches, my teammates laugh and request that I cheer for them, so I keep blaring away. I won the Most Inspirational award this year--elected almost unanimously, out of a team of sixty girls!--in part because of the yell; I also received the Viking Woman Award, given to someone who is involved on the team, in the classroom, and in the community.

I've played violin since halfway through fourth grade. Right now, I'm in the Chamber Orchestra at my school and I take private lessons. While I'm fairly good--I got a rating of "Excellent" on my solo at the regional Solo/Ensemble contest my sophomore year--I play mainly for my own gratification. Being able to evoke, with a few strokes of the bow, the thrills and wonders of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings gives me a huge sense of power and satisfaction.

I occasionally get caught up in a crazy enthusiasm for one thing, often of a geeky bent, that I daydream, study, and breathe for several months: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, Discworld . . . very nearly to the point of irritation, but not quite! I am, therefore, very understanding about the passions of others.

Phew! I hope that is helpful to someone!

I've got more--different colleges had different prompts--and if you want a look at 'em, just comment and tell me so! Also, please feel free to tell me if my posts are getting too long or too self-centered. I'm here for you guys, not to show off my writing skillz.

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