SparkNotes Blog

Reviewing Your College Essays: Life Lessons at Camp Unicorn

Autumn is upon us, Sparkle-Nation! Good news for apple cider enthusiasts, bad news for pumpkins. As temperatures drop, anxiety sky-rockets—because ’tis the season to work on those dreaded college essays. If you’re anything like me, that process goes something like this: open Microsoft Word, quick Twitter break, copy-paste the essay question, Facebook update, write the sentence “Hope is a funny thing,” Google “does Emma Stone date writers,” delete the sentence “Hope is a funny thing,” and then pause for pizza because, hey, I earned it! Today’s essay is from an anonymous SparkLife reader. As with all anonymous emails I receive, I’m going to assume their true identity is music sensation Taylor Swift.

Essay Prompt:

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

Essay Response:

It is almost unbearable on the top bunk.  The hot, humid air clings to my body, and I can smell the lingering scents of bug spray and sunscreen.  Every time I close my eyes, a cell phone lights up or someone decides to get out of bed to go to the bathroom at the end of the hall.  It has been a long day, filled with camp songs, nature walks, and water games.  As a program aide, it is my job to make sure twelve ten-year old Girl Scouts are not running into poison ivy, trying to kill each other or the other program aide in my unit, or capturing the tiny frogs by the pond.

Yet this is my favorite week of the year.  I feel an incredible sense of belonging, lying in my bunk bed, surrounded by the other program aides.  In all the other months of the year, we go to different high schools, play different sports, and talk to different people, but in this one sacred week of June, we are sisters.  We spend the nights on the top floor of the Lodge, sharing one bathroom with two stalls and one shower.  When the campers go home every day, we share that day’s experiences, giving advice about dealing with unruly girls and cleaning the latrines.  We bond over trips to the movies and the water park, singing camp songs at the top of our lungs before the movie previews and at the top of the water slide.  Every summer, Camp Unicorn unites 28 teenage girls.

I have volunteered as a program aide at Camp Unicorn for three years, and before that I was a camper for five years.  Although I have not been a Girl Scout for many years, I still feel at home in this camp, where my friends and I freaked out at fifteen—far too old for this nonsense—because we thought we heard a monster in the woods.  (It was a stray cat).  Where I learned the secret behind snipe hunts.  Where I experience one of the purest forms of summer and friendship.

Camp Unicorn has taught me which way is north and what poison ivy looks like (a lesson I learned the hard way), but it has also taught me about people and about myself.  I have talked with girls I would probably never meet at my private, Catholic school.  I have learned how to coax the shy camper into belting out the Penguin Song.  I have negotiated feuds between best friends and later watched them sharing s’mores around the campfire.  I’ve seen city-raised ten-year-old girls glow when they see the constellations spread out across the night sky or pick up a baby caterpillar.  I’ve calmed eight-year-old girls down when they cry over an itchy mosquito bite and made countless trips to the nurse’s cabin to fetch ice and anti-itching cream.  And on the picnic on the last day, surrounded by pizza and friends and mosquitoes and hyper campers, I am already counting down the days till next year.

* The name of the camp has been changed. Although, who wouldn’t want to attend Camp Unicorn?

My Response:

First of all, great job! You really showed an undeniable passion for the subject matter. I have a few suggestions, but they should be taken as just that: suggestions. Ultimately, this is your essay.

1. I would consider condensing/combining the first two paragraphs.

When writing an application essay, one must always beware of one of the writer’s most feared frenemies: the word count. The first two paragraphs are entertaining, but a bit repetitive. You want to make every word count in your… word count.

Yikes. Sorry about that.

I suggest adding a clear thesis statement to the last line of your first paragraph. I enjoy all the fun, humorous, camp-related stories, but you also want to tie your personal experiences into a larger theme in order to give your essay a little more gravitas. College admission experts love gravitas. Probably because it’s so fun to say.

2. Specific details are great! But I’d limit your examples.

It seems to me that the crux of your essay deals with the effects of stepping out of your comfort zone and how this specific experience helped guide you towards realizing your full potential as a person. It’s a lot like the Mighty Ducks trilogy: you were trying to teach those kids a lesson, but in reality, those kids ended up teaching YOU a lesson. Don’t add that line to your essay. In fact, let’s all just forget I typed that and move on.

Your specific details about the camp are fantastic, but I’d cut a few of those so that the examples that remain have more of an impact. Always try to avoid using “double beats” (a phrase/sentence that’s repetitive of a previously established section and offers no new information).

Your essay is extremely well written, but I would consider rewording a few sentences in your third paragraph to make them a bit more effective. For example, you might change “Camp Unicorn has taught me which way is north and what poison ivy looks like (a lesson I learned the hard way), but it has also taught me about people and about myself” to:

I’ve learned many lessons at Camp Unicorn—like how to find true north without a compass and avoid infectious skin rashes (thanks for that one, poison ivy)—but the most valuable lessons I learned were those about myself .

Also, I would change the phrase “I have negotiated feuds” to “I helped resolve feuds,” unless you actually tried to pit these campers against each other. If you did try to incite a brawl, omit that from your essay.

3. Succinctly answer exactly how this event impacted your life.

It feels as though you might be getting to the heart of your essay a little late. Combining the first two paragraphs allows you to seamlessly transition into the universal experience of bonding with people that, in different circumstances, you’d never have the opportunity to converse with. You mentioned that camp taught you about yourself; I’d elaborate on that. Personally, I think you should consider trying to relate camp to college and how it specifically prepared you for the post-high school experience.

Overall, I think you did a wonderful job! As always, I would recommend having a teacher, mentor, or Matt Damon review your essay before you hand it in. Read it out loud, proofread, get a second opinion, revise, send it out, and then treat yourself to a root beer float. You earned it!

Good luck!

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