Cats, Ghana, and College Application Essays
Decisions are the worst!
Sparkler Angela sent us two essays she’s deciding between: one about cats—are they good or evil, friend or foe, smart or incredibly, unbelievably, maddeningly stupid?—and one about her experience at an orphanage in Ghana.
Here is my feedback on the cat essay: AMEN, SISTER.
My feedback on the Ghana essay is below. I decided to review this one not because I think serious is necessarily always better, but because in this particular case, there seemed to be more potential for unique and original content in Angela’s Ghana story, and original content is more memorable.
“Choose your own prompt.” Yaaay! Or wait—eek? Non-prompt prompts are definitely a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have so many options! On the other, you have so many options.
As I stared at the orphans playing on the single tire swing that functioned as their playground, I became distracted by the barren world that would serve as my home for the next two months. Standing uncomfortably by the run-down mud walls of the orphanage, I questioned how I ever thought I could do this by myself. What were my parents thinking when they agreed to let do this? On a family trip 10 years ago, I visited the Jirapa orphanage. Distraught by the plight of the orphans, I promised myself I would do something—anything—to help these kids. Four years later, I found myself flying unaccompanied halfway across the world to fulfill this promise.
On paper, my idea had seemed simple; make a dent in the lives of fifteen orphans, but even with months of careful planning and fundraising I felt drastically underprepared for the challenges that awaited me in Jirapa, a remote village in Ghana. For starters, the $18,647 worth of donations I had spent the past few years tirelessly collecting did not seem to be even marginally enough to create a lasting impact on the orphans’ life. How soon would it be before the clothes I had donated transformed into the decaying rags the children were wearing, or the books into bindless stacks of paper? Would the gifts even make it to the orphans? Earlier that week I had noticed a caretaker slip a few dresses under her clothes, no doubt to take home to her own children who, like the orphans, were deprived. How do you help a community where everyone is suffering?
The caretakers, on a government-subsidized salary, seemed oblivious to the needs of the orphans. For dinner, they served one large bowl of fufu, a local Ghanian dish, and placed it in the center of the room. Fifteen filthy hands reached in, desperate to get his or her own share while the caretakers sat across the room, each enjoying a personal heaping bowl.
All by myself I had traveled across the country, and all by myself I would watch as the metaphorical buckets of cement I thought I was brining to clog the dam turned into pathetic cups of clay. A gentle tugging at my shirt interrupted my worrying as I glanced down to see a little bald girl, smiling up at me through missing front teeth. “Minla! Minla!” she giggled pointing to the kids swinging on the tire swing and urging me to come and play with them. I glanced at the children, wondering if they were aware of the gravity of their situation. Did they know they weren’t being taken care of properly, that half of the donations people sent them would never make it into their deprived hands? The child’s bright eyes and continuous laughter answered my dismal question and I willingly obeyed as she pulled me across the field, eager to introduce me to her friends.
“This is Minla” she cheerfully introduced me. Not fluent in her dialect, I had no way of informing the girl that my name was not Minla, choosing instead to accept her mistake for the moment and embrace the happy oblivion of the children.
Later that night, I asked the orphanage director what the girl meant when she called me Minla. “Minla,” she paused, an understanding smile spreading across her face, “means we are smiling and so you too shall smile.” The innocence of this statement stunned me. How difficult a thing to bear a smile in even the grimmest of situations. Could I too smile? I had come to Ghana with something and the excited laughter of the children when they saw the clothing and toys I had brought was indeed a thing to smile about. I may not be able to clog the dam now but to stop would be to watch these children drown.
Let’s get the little things out of the way first, eh? Don’t worry, there’s not much—you’re a really strong writer!
1. A couple typos: Ghanian should be “Ghanaian” and in the next paragraph, “bringing” is missing its first “g.”
2. Non-English words: Italicize fufu and Minla to indicate that they’re words from the local dialect.
3. “Bindless” should be “unbound.”
4. I would simplify or somehow tweak the dam metaphor you’ve got going on—it feels a little forced. Make it clear that this is a metaphor for how you felt, not necessarily what was happening, and I think it will be a little stronger and more natural.
Now for the big picture stuff:
As I said, there is great potential here. I sincerely admire your determination and courage. What an amazing feat to raise that amount of money and then travel all by yourself to an unfamiliar place! Your independence and follow-through show a level of maturity and seriousness that I think will really impress college admissions boards.
That said, I think this essay could benefit from a shift in focus: from this community’s deficits, to their assets; and from your role as their savior, to your role as their student.
Here are all the words in your essay that refer to the people of Jirapa either lacking something, whether it be material goods or knowledge, or deserving pity: “barren,” “run-down,” “plight,” “decaying,” “oblivious,” “desperate,” “pathetic,” “missing,” “gravity,” “deprived,” “oblivion,” and “innocence.”
Now consider your essay’s most powerful sentence: “We are smiling and so you too shall smile.”
All the world’s peoples have strengths. People are resilient, resourceful, and creative. People who are different from us cope and thrive in ways we might not readily recognize or understand. This is the premise of an approach to development called asset-based community development (or ABCD).
Viewing the world and its problems through an asset-based lens doesn’t mean that you don’t help others; rather, it means that if you’re going to help them, you do so by working to understand their assets, and helping them build on those assets to achieve their (not your) vision of the good life. The first step in understanding is listening—or, as I said above, being a “student.”
You write, “The innocence of this statement stunned me.” What about “the wisdom of this statement”? If you truly felt transformed and educated by these people, then I would downplay language that describes what they lacked, and play up their role as resilient, determined people with wisdom to impart. I have no doubt that your generosity and attention made these Ghanaian children smile. But they were probably smiling before you got there, too, because kids are just really good at having fun. As for the adults, they may not describe their situation as “the grimmest,” even if it felt that way to you.
(Side note: I would be careful about casting aspersions on the caretakers at the orphanage. Write what you observed, not what you assumed; as an outsider and a guest, you may not know the whole story.)
I can’t tell you how to interpret your own experience, but I can tell you that I think the essay would be stronger if it emphasized growth or change on your part. At the beginning of the essay you’re determined to help these kids, and at the end of the essay, you’re determined to help these kids. What did you get out of the experience that you couldn’t have gotten if you stayed home? And how has this experience shaped your attitude and goals going forward? I think you start to get at that, but could make it clearer.
I think there is great potential to play up the contrast between the temporary quality of the material goods you donated, one on hand, with the enduring quality of the relationships you built, on the other. As you say, the clothes you brought will turn to rags—but long after they do, you’ll still feel connected to these people, half a world away, as a result of the experiences you shared with them. And you’ll share their story with others, and maybe even return there. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
Minla, you’ve got some serious assets to build upon here. You seem to be a natural storyteller with a heart of gold. I have no doubt you’ll end up with a moving essay that will blow them away!
What do you think of this essay?