Laura is working on a college application essay about terror, tarnished reputations, and fifth grade. Check it out!
Prompt: Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
The Anthem of My Elementary Years
All my life I’d prepared for it; from mindlessly completing writing drills, to leading my wagon train through the perilous Oregon Trail simulation. It all culminated in one moment: fifth grade graduation. I wasn’t anticipating the caps fabricated out of gray construction paper, nor was I awaiting the presentation of the coveted Presidential Award. Not being a superstar athlete, or the class clown, I was looking forward to having the spotlight for once. Upon the last day of elementary school, I grasped the microphone in my sweaty hands, with my pulse quickening as I drew in each strained breath. I began, voice wailing, “Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?” I gasped for a quick breath to continue the melody and then… silence.
I had forgotten the lyrics.
With my reputation tarnished for what I deemed an eternity, I pondered how, despite extensive preparation, a mere eighty words could have been obliterated from my memory. I was as disappointed as a four year old on Christmas morning who discovers the grandiose gift Aunt Rose had bought me during her extravagant trip to Thailand was a pair of a knitted socks. All of the mental recitation of the national anthem had amounted to nothing. Or so I thought.
Instead of wallowing in self pity over the missed opportunity, I set forth on the campaign to redemption. The journey would culminate five years later, when I found myself, once again, microphone in hand and heart palpitating. However, this time I had reached the end of the two minute hymn that haunted my elementary school memories, “And the home of the brave!” That’s how I thought of the auditorium that day, as home of the brave; and I was truly one of the brave. I did not deem myself valiant for simply conquering one of my greatest fears—I was heroic for facing and overcoming adversity. The hardships I confronted didn’t stifle my ambitions, but ignited a drive that allowed me to conquer the perilous melodies of the national anthem, finally slaying the beast that had desecrated the image I had worked years to obtain in elementary school.
While a lifetime of success isn’t as simple as half-singing, half-croaking the Star Spangled Banner in a crowded auditorium, it has allowed me to see the value in hard work itself, not just of the resultant benefits. The experience has provided me the intrinsic motivation and perseverance to not only set and achieve goals, but to learn from the journey and its obstacles. I now shun the easy way out, expect challenges, expect hard work, but also expect those experiences to enrich my character. I live by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s platitude, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
I had hoped my efforts at the fifth grade graduation would lead to my peers changing their perceptions of me, but, in the end, the only opinion I changed was my own view of the world.
Well done, Laura; this essay is funny, sweet, and self-deprecating. A few suggestions:
1. Edit the introduction. It took me a few moments to get oriented at the outset of your essay. I didn't know whether to expect an essay about fifth grade, wagon trails, graduation, or something else. Jump right into the moment of humiliation with an opening like, "I grasped the microphone in my sweaty hands. My pulse quickened. My fifth grade class was graduating, and I was about to sing the national anthem."
2. Describe the moment of victory more fully. Instead of rushing through your high school triumph in one sentence ("this time I reached the end of the two-minute hymn"), slow down and create some tension. Make us wonder if you performed well, and then make it clear that you succeeded brilliantly. In this draft, I had to reread the sentence to make sure I understood what had happened.
3. Keep your perspective. You do an admirable job at poking gentle fun of yourself in this essay. But you slip a bit (or seem to) in the section that begins "I did not deem myself valiant" and ends "slaying the beast that had desecrated the image I had worked years to obtain in elementary school" (what does that second phrase mean, by the way? It's unclear. Rewrite). I think you're going for a mock heroic tone here, but I'm not sure, and that's a problem. You don't want your readers to get to the sentence, "I was heroic for facing and overcoming adversity" and think, "Wait, she doesn't really think she's faced adversity, does she?" You regain your footing right away when you admit that finding success isn't as simple as half-croaking the Star-Spangled Banner, but don't let your cheerfully down-to-earth tone drop even for a moment.
4. Simplify your language. Read your essay out loud, and listen for phrases that sound awkward ("resultant benefits," "grandiose gift," "intrinsic motivation"). Get rid of anything that sounds forced or lifted from a thesaurus. Make your prose readable and real, and your humor will shine even brighter.
Weigh in on Laura's essay—leave your constructive criticism in the comments!