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When people who write become writers

Perhaps one of my biggest regrets in the past few years is not hanging onto my college admissions essay. In hindsight, I feel like I really should have – it was a really personal, heartfelt undertaking that led me to really explore parts of my soul. (Wow. I just hyped up the college application process more than it should ever be hyped up.)

But I also understand why I didn’t save it. What I wrote in that essay, I assumed was a given. It was a truth about me so deep and personal, yet so simple, that I could never forget or alter it. And that’s remained true over the past three years.

So I think the reason I regret not hanging onto it (besides the fact that I just genuinely didn’t realize you couldn’t log into your Common Application account a year later and review your stuff) wasn’t that I wanted to remember what I wrote – I wanted to remember how I wrote it.

Because that’s the kind of thing that changes. “Growing up” for me so far has been a whole lot of finding different ways of saying the same things, with my actions, with my words, with my adventures, with my struggles. Oh, God. Have I been “finding myself” at college?

Well, that’s neither here nor there, but chances are that your college essay will be one stop on the long road of finding yourself. And it’s important to remember how you expressed the things you discovered or knew about yourself at that point in your life. Your words are a time capsule that reflects the way you thought about yourself in a given moment or situation.

Finding yourself in 600 words or less?

And a college essay is a really unique way to do that, because while every piece of writing is a self-expression, it doesn’t always feel that way. You could be writing for your English teacher, for your blog readers, for your grandma on her birthday. But rarely are you just writing for yourself.

Sure, maybe you enjoy writing a short story now and then or you’ve sent some work off to be published or you’ve been part of a high school research team that’s about to cure cancer or maybe you even write in a diary and all of those things are for yourself, right?

But a college admissions essay isn’t just an expression, it’s a presentation. You have to somehow express yourself genuinely (which is encouraged) while at the same time realizing that this isn’t just an innocuous exercise.

How your self-concept, emerging during admissions season through your writing, will evolve into a new self-concept, is directly contingent on the results of that writing. In other words, the way you express “you” right now has a direct impact on the opportunities future “you” will have to discover itself.

So, college essays can feel at the same time like the most intimate and the most impersonal pieces of writing you’ll ever do. Or maybe they just feel like a chore that you can BS just like an AP English essay; I certainly don’t want to make it too dramatic, but the fact remains that these essays are inherently awkward.

Settling on, not for, a topic

I remember deliberating for a long time before choosing my subject. I think I was answering one of those questions that went something like, “Think about an environment that you feel safe in or that you feel you belong in.”

I’ll be totally honest, I thought (not very seriously, but still) about writing something along the lines of, “I visited your school this past summer and, quite sincerely, I’ve thought of it as ‘home’ in my head and my heart ever since.”

Eeeeewwww. I am so glad I didn’t write that. Some people will tell you to suck up to the school as much as possible by demonstrating knowledge of their programs and passion for their mission, but I could only do so much of that and still feel genuine.

Of course, college essays don’t have to be genuine. There’s a difference between expressing yourself truthfully and being genuine, which is something that I was surprised to learn in this process. It comes down again to how you say what you want to say.

I could list my accomplishments and my passions, I could tell the admissions committee that I fell in love with Cornell, and I could do it with flair. It might make me memorable, and what could it hurt? It’s not like they would follow up and make sure I was just as grandiose as I seemed.

But part of the college application process is determining that the school is a right fit for you, not just that you are a good fit for the school. And if I wasn’t genuine in my essay, at least as genuine as I could be, I might hurt my chances of finding a school that was a good match for my personality, not just that was prestigious.

So that’s why I’m glad that I didn’t pander to the admissions team, because that’s not me and, as I’ve come to realize, that’s not Cornell, either. I mean, sure, there are people I’ve met here who I can imagine writing an essay like that, and there’s nothing wrong with that; if that’s who they are, that’s how they should write.

But by writing about a topic that was really special to me in a voice that conveyed how I actually felt, I improved my chances of getting into the school of my dreams. I had crazy conspiracy theories, too, like, “What if I’m supposed to say that I’m most comfortable when I’m uncomfortable so it shows them I search for growth opportunities?”

Personality, perspective, perseverance (not the only ingredients you need but a good start)

Yeah. College applications can make you go nuts. But when I couldn’t settle on a topic or a way to broach the subject of comfortability in general, I decided to go for a swim to clear my head. And as always, it worked, because when I’m swimming I’m home.

Which of course is what I finally ended up writing about. I actually submitted my application ten minutes before heading to a swim meet. I’d only been on the swim team for two years, and if there’s anything I regret more than not saving my admissions essay, it’s not going out for the team earlier than I did.

I wrote that in my essay, too. I wrote about how diving into the frigid water gives you a rush of adrenaline that instantly equalizes your body temperature (at least from my perspective) and makes you feel like you’re floating.

I wrote about the rush of competing, of slicing through the water, of literally having to drag yourself through fluid space. Then I wrote about completing calm laps over and over, gazing down into the clear turquoise depths of what looked to me like Narnia, suspended above like I was flying.

I came up with my essay idea while I was swimming. It’s where I do a lot of my thinking. It’s an immediate destresser – I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t be, since rigorous swimming burns over 500 calories per hour.

Swimming helps me return to problems with a new perspective. And when I’m swimming 10×50 yards in a row on 30-second intervals (which I probably can’t do anymore), a college admissions essay doesn’t seem so hard.

Sarah Chandler

Sarah Chandler is a junior at Cornell University studying Performing and Media Arts and Psychology.As much as she loves writing for CollegeVine, she'd rather be astral projecting or watching The Office. She has too much fun writing bios like these for her own good.