Here I'll discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of Jill's essay "Buck Up" that she wrote in response to Option #3 on the Common Application.
We'll begin with the first thing any reader will notice: the title. If you think titles don't matter, think again. A good title can immediately pique your readers' curiosity and grab their attention. The title frames and focuses the words that follow. A missing title is a lost opportunity and a weak title is an immediate handicap.
Unfortunately, coming up with a good title can be remarkably difficulty.
Jill's title "Buck Up" is good in some ways. For one, it's playful as Jill uses the phrase "buck up" in the idiomatic sense of showing some courage or backbone, but the word "buck" also relates to a bucking horse trying to throw its rider. Where the title falls a little short is with its clarity. We really don't know what the essay is about based on the title, and we can appreciate the title only after we have read the essay.
I love the focus of Jill's essay. So many essays on an influential person have a tone of hero worship as the writer tells us how wonderful Mom or Dad or dead Grandma or Coach or Uncle Harvey is. Jill, however, focuses on someone who in many ways isn't even likable. Susan Lewis is unreliable, rude, poorly educated, and terrible at running a business. She is, as Jill points out, an unlikely person to choose for an essay on an influential person.
By focusing on Susan Lewis, Jill has accomplished two important things: she has crafted an essay on option #3 that isn't typical, and she has shown us that she can recognize the positive in a person who has a lot of negatives going for her. Put into other words, Jill has shown that she is a creative and open-minded thinker, two qualities that will impress the college admissions folks.
Finally, Jill successfully does all that the prompt asks -- she doesn't just describe the influential person, but also explains the influence. We learn that through Susan Lewis's influence, Jill has grown to appreciate hard work and perseverance.
Striking the right tone can be a big challenge in an essay like Jill's. Jill has focused on a rather ridiculous woman, so it would be easy to come across as mocking or condescending. Indeed, Jill is quick to point out many of Susan Lewis's shortcomings. The essay's light and playful tone, however, comes across as loving and appreciative, not deprecating. Jill is clearly a skillful writer, and she has managed to provide just the right balance of levity and seriousness.
"Buck Up" is not a perfect essay, but the flaws are few. I'd get rid of a couple of the cliché or tired phrases such as "sticks to her guns" and "back on his feet." The phrase "curses like a sailor" is also a bit overused, but I thought it added a colorful touch to the description of Sue. In the first sentence of the essay, "that" should really be "who" since the relative pronoun refers to a person, and in the second paragraph, I find the logic of "because" in the second sentence confusing. These are all small issues, but the essay, like any essay, does have room for improvement.
In general, however, Jill has proven herself a talented writer. From the very first paragraph, the essay has a pleasing variety of sentence types ranging from short and punchy to long and complex. The language is playful and engaging, and Jill has done an admirable job painting a rich portrait of Susan Lewis in a few short paragraphs. Every sentence and paragraph adds important details to the essay, and the reader never gets the sense that Jill is wasting space with a bunch of unnecessary fluff. This is important, for with the new 500-word limit on Common Application essays, there's no room for wasted words. At 478 words, Jill is safely within the length limit.
What I most admire about the writing is that Jill's personality comes through. We get a sense of her humor, her power of observation, and her generosity of spirit. A lot of applicants feel like they need to brag about their accomplishments in the essay, yet Jill shows how those accomplishments can be conveyed in a pleasingly understated way.
It's always important to keep in mind why colleges ask applicants to write essays. On a simple level, they want to make sure you can write well, something that Jill has demonstrated effectively with "Buck Up." But more significantly, the admissions folks want to get to know the students they are considering for admission. Test scores and grades don't tell a college what type of person you are other than one who works hard and tests well. What's your personality like? What do you truly care about? How do you communicate your ideas to others? And the big one--Are you the type of person we want to invite to become part of our campus community? The personal essay (along with the interview and letters or recommendation) is one of the few pieces of the application that helps the admissions folks get to know the person behind the grades and test scores.
Jill's essay, whether deliberately or not, answers these questions in ways that work in her favor. She shows that she is observant, caring, and funny. She demonstrates self-awareness as she narrates the ways in which she has grown as a person. She shows that she is generous and finds positive qualities in people who have a lot of negatives. And she reveals that she gets pleasure out of overcoming challenges and working hard to achieve her goals. In short, she comes across as the type of person who would enrich a campus community.