Member preview

№14 What Not to Write in Your College Essay

“aerial view of graduates wearing hats” by Good Free Photos on Unsplash

Early admissions applications are due next month so high school seniors all over the country are writing their college essays. My niece is working on hers and that got me thinking about the college essay I wrote 33 years ago.

Mine was a puffed up version of winning a cross-country race. The essay highlighted my most prominent personality trait — my ego. The good news: It charmed the admissions officers at the University of Pennsylvania. The bad news: It was full of shit. If I had been truthful, here’s what it would have said in response to the common app prompt about the meaningfulness of my background and identity:

I am a Jewish American (I won’t say princess because I’m more a tomboy). I’m 17 and go to Palmetto High. What group you belong to is a big deal, which is why I made up this cheer for our senior class cheer contest: “We’re the class of JAPS and Spics, senior class of ’86.” I didn’t win. The winning cheer goes, “We’re a mighty panther mix, senior class of ’86.” I totally should have won.

I park my Toyota Supra in the JAP section. Once when I parked in the redneck section, my tires were flattened. Not sliced, just flattened, so my boyfriend brought me a bike pump and that did the job. I had no idea you could pump up a car by hand, but you can.

I won’t know this for 20 years, but I will be invited to speak at the annual Sisterhood brunch at Bet Shira, which is a conservative synagogue. I will tell a story about a time I turned into a JAP. I will think I’m reclaiming the term, but I will be booed. One woman in her late 60s, with dyed hair and a silk blouse, will stand up and say she and her sisters have worked their whole lives to bury that demeaning term and I will never use it again.

My dad is an optometrist and my mom is an artist, also a volunteer for the Democratic Party. I have a brother who is two years older than me and goes to the University of Florida, but I have a feeling he’s going to fail out.

Last month, my friends and I stayed with him at Pi Lam, which is a Jewish fraternity, and all he did was smoke pot. I think I smoked pot too, but I can’t remember because I blacked out. No, for real. I’ve never been so drunk. All I remember is waking up on top of a giant garbage can. That’s when I noticed I wasn’t wearing underwear. Later, I remembered going into the woods behind the house with a very cute frat brother.

There was another very cute fraternity brother who spent the weekend totally naked. I only remember that because I have an awesome Polaroid of the two of us standing arm-in-arm in front of my brother’s bed.

I won’t think about my time at the frat house for 30 years, not after reading books called Fraternity Gang RapeandBoys Will Be Boysor after some privileged Stanford University swimmer raped an unconscious woman and barely got in trouble for it or even after living through #MeToo and remembering some examples that happened to #MeToo. No, I won’t remember this weekend until I have a daughter of my own and still not even until she gets a dick pic from a fellow eighth-grader.

I know fraternities are a pretty big deal in college, but I think fraternities are totally gay. Not gay, gay, although a bunch of guys living together could get funky and I’ve heard that they put each other through some pretty gnarly pledge situations, something about socks and walking around naked like elephants in a line. I don’t really know since it’s all top secret. Still, I had a great time that weekend, I think. And I’m really looking forward to college life.

I won’t know this for six years, but soon I’ll be gay. When I’m a senior in college, sitting in a Women’s Studies class called “Language, Gender, Power, and Ideology,” a woman, who starts every conversation with, “As a lesbian…” will look right at me and say, “As a lesbian I know about PLT or pre-lesbian tension.” She’ll go on to explain that PLT is when a “straight woman” (she’ll use air quotes) exhibits heightened curiosity about the life of a lesbian.

I’ll say, “Just because I asked, ‘how’s your girlfriend?’ doesn’t mean I’m a lesbian.” But a few years later I’ll remember my own PLT and I’ll spot it in others.

The main thing about my identity is that I’m Jewish, which is cool because I’m told we’re a minority, even though there are so many of us at my school, we sort of rule. Also, Jews are famous for doing charity and I know colleges like kids who do charity. We all had to do a Bar or Bat Mitzvah project, which is called Tikkun Olam. That’s Hebrew for charity. The Hebrew word Tzedakah also means charity. Jews have so many words for charity, we’re like Eskimos with snow.

I didn’t do the whole Hebrew school thing like my friends did. My parents gave me a choice, softball or Hebrew school. I chose softball. So I didn’t actually do Tzedakah. My point is, I would have done Tzedakah if I didn’t have softball games and practice and other fun stuff. I would have saved the whales.

There’s a whale trapped inside the Miami Seaquarium. A few weeks ago, Shellie and I busted out of school after third period because it was a really sunny day and we were losing our tans. We drove to the beach and I saw a lady on the causeway with a big sign that said, “Free Lolita.” I would have done my part to free her, except I really didn’t have time.

But, I did put my time in learning what it means to be Jewish. Every Saturday, from like six until I turned 13, my parents made me go to Sabbath school, which could easily be renamed Holocaust Academy. There, I learned that my people suffered. A lot. And not just 45 years ago in the Holocaust, but since the beginning of time. We suffered so much it seems like all our holidays — Chanukah, Passover, Purim — celebrate (I mean commemorate) getting our tires flattened.

I won’t know exactly when I’ll snap out of my idiotic insensitivity, but at some point I’ll learn the difference between flat tires and gas showers. They say the brain matures at 24, but even after 24, it will be a slow progression from self-centered kid to empathetic adult. It will take a combination of reading stories about survival — Nightand The Diary of Anne Frank — and growing up. I’ll travel; I’ll teaching memoir writing and I’ll hear stories including ones by students living in a homeless shelter. I’ll realize how people struggle and suffer and that all these years later I still have no idea what it feels like to be a minority.

As I understand the admissions process, kids get extra points for charity, good grades, a high SAT score, sports, legacy — damn, my parents were totally mediocre and just went to University of Miami — and points for diversity. So I get points for charity and diversity. In conclusion, being diverse is part of my background and identity and has made me who I am. Save the whales!

I won’t know this for 33 years, until I turn 50, that at 17, I had no fucking idea about anything.


№14 of my #weeklyessaychallenge. I gave myself this challenge when I turned 50. I was inspired by author Ray Bradbury, who said to write a story every week for a year. He thinks it’s impossible to write 52 bad stories in a row. #weeklyessay