Oh The Mortification of the College Application Essay: Or, Don't Worry Columbia Class of 2017, You Got This

Was your college application essay as mortifying as mine was? Or the essays from Columbia's Class of 2017?
Publish date:
April 24, 2013
college application essays, class of 2017, columbia

Holy shit.

That was my first thought as I combed through the many college application essays leaked on Gawker after a tip-off to Ivygate of a Google drive folder where the Columbia University Class of 2017 shared (seemingly only to fellow students) their application essays to build community amongst their fellow students.

Not so much.

Hours later multiple Internet message boards included ruthless mocking of the students and their earnest writing, ambitions and most private revelations.

For the record, I think the fact that these students shared their essays with one another is a pretty gorgeous, trusting gesture meant to reveal "Hey guys, this is me." For those students weathering the storm of mockery since the leak best, they've rolled with the punches and said: You know what, this essay got me in, and that's all there is to say about that.

Sadly, my own delightfully mortifying college application essay is long lost.

I've cleaned out a lot of the hoarded personal memorabilia from my life over the years. This includes: My high school yearbooks (even though I was the editor), almost every picture from a 10-year-relationship, 5 of those years spent in marriage (all except for two tattered snapshots), every old email from my ex-husband (except for a few I forgot to delete and remind me what a different person I was), the wedding album I made after we decided we were getting divorced (I know, I'm a masochist), and anything that might belong in a "to file" or "to read" category or is a letter from someone that doesn't resonate for me now when I start to read it again.

Someone once told me this great tip: If it weakens you, throw it out. If it makes you feel stronger, keep it. Clothing included. (And what a wonderful philosophy to apply to your personal life and choices you make there as well.)

And because I've been so thorough in following this get-rid-of-it philosophy, I'm almost 100 percent positive that any copies of the college application essays that I sent out are long lost in the trash somewhere. Or in the computer that had water accidentally spilled on it my freshman year by a wealthy Northwestern student who then refused to buy me a new one or compensate me in any way. He went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. I still fantasize about emailing him and asking if he's ready to replace my old Apple 2E for me yet. Maybe with the Pulitzer cash?

But what I do have is an old blog entry that I wrote from my now privatized personal Web site (incidentally, I'll be releasing all of these writings as an eBook compendium in a matter of days), where I touched upon the cheap cloying sympathy-card-playing shitshow that were my college application essays. As for my stats, here's where I fell (and where the essays got me). I was accepted into: Cornell, UPenn, Northwestern, UC Berkeley and rejected from: Stanford. Waitlisted at Georgetown and Pomona.

As I've written about before, I've had a turbulent childhood growing up with a wounded combat marine father, who is blind, has a head injury that affects his personality (but not one that prevents him from having a masters in counseling and helping a lot of PTSD vets in San Diego) and has undergone more than 150 surgeries in his lifetime.

The first essay I wrote about him won me a National Council of Teachers of English award (along with a timed essay I did fretting about Magic Johnson), where I wrote about my father's "gentle taps of the cane" (this was before he had a guide dog). My mom, who has fairly severe obsessive compulsive disorder used to wash her hands and do what she called "going crazy" as I grew up. When she "went crazy," my mom would make gurgling noises as she washed and washed her hands over again. The joke we made in my house was that I was going to write a follow-up ode to my mom talking about her "rigorous washings of the hand" or something equally flowery and over-the-top giving her unique personality signature its literary due.

The next time I wrote about my father, or I tried, was in 1997 when I was at The Washington Post. I never completed the essay then. But I did finally write it, when I was in a graduate course for storytelling to fulfill a public speaking requirement at Northwestern's education graduate school, it inspired me to get back into writing again and not give up on my voice. Thanks, dad. Sincerely.

My parents, with whom there is never a dull moment, also divorced one another right when I got married in 2000. Then when I got divorced in 2005, they remarried one another. My father, who looks like a guy who's taken two AK-47 rounds in the face, has always cleaned up with the ladies, and had not one but two fiancees during this separation.

I was angry during this time. I suppose I still have a ton of anger. But I think I've gotten a lot of it out, and I'm a lot better about detaching with love.

So this piece from my personal blog, written in 2004, which I'm sharing with you below, references these events. I hope you enjoy it as much as I angrily enjoyed writing it.


My father now signs his cards "Jer." For a while, post-divorce in 2001, he had cranked it up all the way to "Daddy," a name that I hadn't called him since I was a kid. But now it's Jer.

Jer is engaged to Jan, and together, they are: Jan and Jer.

Jer taught me many things about writing. He is blind, and when I was 16 I won a big English contest describing how he taught me many things about writing.

"I silently dedicate what I have written to the man who taught me the necessity of words to convey beauty in the absence of pictures."

Never one to waste a good line, I also managed to work it into:

-college essays-internship applicationsand-in-person interviews, complete with hair toss and smile

"As yearbook editor, assistant newspaper editor, and an active member of the Spanish club, I silently dedicate my writing to the man who taught me the necessity of words to convey beauty in the absence of pictures.

"And, you know, there are so many things, but it's probably the vibrancy of the intellectual community at Cornell that appeals to me the most."

Hair toss. Smile.

Jer is not one of those people who was born blind. He was shot twice in the face in Vietnam, a pretty defining incident if ever there was one. He was 21, and it was about as horrible as it sounds.

In 1997 after a pitch to write about my relationship with Jer for The Washington Post, I interviewed his plastic surgeon on the phone for background. It was uncomfortable in every way that an interview can be. The girlish tittering and "uh-huhs" I normally used to loosen up sources felt exceptionally out of place.

On one such conference call to get the details of the bullet wounds and points of entry just right, the surgeon exhaled sharply. "Well, Jerry," he muttered, "it seems your daughter has developed a rather ghoulish interest in your injury, hasn't she?"

I did hours of interviews, but I didn't write the story. It was in late 2001, right about when Clear Channel banned "Imagine" that I found the 22 pages of single-spaced transcript. And as I read it, I let myself actually feel the details of the experience, rather than thinking about them as details of the experience.

Jer had been in Vietnam for just one month when he was caught in the sniper attack. He was the only one to survive. A few days before, his best friend had been killed. A few weeks before, his mother had died. And when Jer finally returned home to San Diego, his girlfriend ended the relationship when she saw what he looked like. She couldn't handle it. Others simply passed out in the hospital corridor.

Throughout those interview sessions, Jer would often address me directly, and, like a good reporter, I faithfully typed every word.

"Oh honey," my dad said.

"It was really, really bad."


It touches me every time I read this old piece. It brings up all the anger and sadness and love I felt then.

Maybe that's what college application essays exist to do.

Capture little moments in time. In the way that they are adolescent, striving and represent a life, not yet complete, but only beginning to unfold. Imperfect in just that perfect way.


Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.