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Neither Snotty Nor Saintly

Neither Snotty Nor Saintly

By Miss Marm

Writing about volunteer work is really tough. You don't want to sound snotty, saintly, clueless, politically correct, or phony. And it's hard not to sound like you're all of those things, even if—especially if—you're passionate about your volunteerism and eager to get across how much it means to you.

This Sparkler, who is writing a college admissions essay, avoids most of the pitfalls of writing about volunteering—but not all. Here's the prompt he's responding to:

One definition of sacrifice is "to surrender or give up, or permit injury or disadvantage to, for the sake of something else." In no more than 300 words, describe a time when you put the significant needs of someone else ahead of your own.

Here's his excellent opening paragraph:

I watched a cockroach scuttle across the floor ahead of me. “Right this way,” ushered the manager, motioning his hand to the corridor on his right. I had never been to the local food bank before, so I took each step through the dimly-lit warehouse apprehensively, as if I were in a horror movie. The air was thick and musty; it smelled of spoiled meat. My sneakers crackled along on the curiously sticky cement floor. I was anxious, but I knew I was here for a good reason—to help the impoverished.

Here are my comments:

I watched a cockroach scuttle across the floor ahead of me [brilliant opening sentence]. “Right this way,” ushered [in dialogue tags, simplicity is best. Use "said" instead of "ushered"] the manager, motioning his hand to ["motioning toward" is more concise and more accurate] the corridor on his right. I had never been to the local food bank before, so I took each step through the dimly-lit warehouse apprehensively, as if I were in a horror movie. [here's where we get into dangerous territory. You're already doing a great job of conveying your nervousness. Saying you felt like you were in a horror movie is laying it on too thick. It suggests that you were terrified of the people you were about to serve, and that's not the idea you want to get across.] The air was thick and musty; it smelled of spoiled meat. [GREAT SENTENCE. Evocative and tactile, but not judgmental. Perfect.] My sneakers crackled along on the curiously [whenever you can get rid of an adjective or adverb, do it. Kill this "curiously"] sticky cement floor. I was anxious, but I knew I was here for a good reason—to help the impoverished. [there's something iffy about the word "impoverished." Yes, it's accurate, and you don't want to get all gross and PC and say "differently enriched" or something horrible like that, but "impoverished" sounds just slightly hoity-toity and a touch Dickensian. What about something like "impoverished people," "hungry people," or "people who were down on their luck"?]

Here's how I might revise:

I watched a cockroach scuttle across the floor ahead of me. “Right this way,” said the manager, motioning to the corridor on his right. I had never been to the local food bank before, and I was apprehensive. The warehouse was dimly lit. The air was thick and musty; it smelled of spoiled meat. My sneakers crackled along on the sticky cement floor. I was anxious, but I knew I was here for a good reason—to help people who were down on their luck.

How are you doing with your application essays, Sparklers? Send questions to missmarm@sparknotes.com.

Topics: volunteering, application essays, food banks
 

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