Writing a college essay that is well received on the admissions end can actually come down to some pretty uncertain variables. The reader was interrupted by a family argument, a pen runs out of ink or even this week's mid-life search for the meaning of it all. In many ways, said former New York Times editor Jack Topchik, "It's a crap shoot." Nonetheless, in retirement the Katonah resident offers 40 years of journalism experience to help local students stand out among the many and whatever unfair factors that might hurt them.
Putting aside the potential weariness of an admissions officer, selectingtypical topics won't exhibit that something extra the reader is looking for. "Why I want to attend your university" or "How my parents inspire me" should be obvious. Not quite so much, the community service trip taken to Uruguay. "Half of Northern Westchester goes to South America and paints a few houses," he said.
Of course, some aspect of a common trend can certainly provide an eye opening angle that makes the reader sit up straight. Flushing out a topic, as the first meeting is meant to do, one girl found meaning in the work-worn hands of a grandmother in Mexico (where her summer service was spent). "It's insight into another human being," he says that reveals something about the writer.
Having a sense of humor says something too but can come with an all or nothing risk. One of his students wrote about what it was like to grow up in a family of therapists, where everything he did was psychoanalyzed. "They'll love it or hate," he said with the day of the week determining readers with potentially different tastes.
The same goes for an essay exhibiting shock value. In the case of Mr. Topchik's son, he chose to relay an inspiring story of leadership demonstrated by one of the players on his football team. Down 17-0 at halftime, helmets were thrown and the captain of the team declared, "No one comes into our house and does this to us."
Omitted here are the expletives that the essay included as a means to bring true drama to the piece. Mr. Topchik cautioned that at SMU, reality wouldn't work so well, but at acollege like Amherst, where he was later excepted, it was a risk worth taking.
Having experience dating back about 15 years working with journalism students at several colleges, father knowing best applies pretty closely here. On the other hand, the opinions of well-meaning parents may be as dated as the stale 50's sitcom and the essays colleges once looked for. "Parents want safe," he said, but conveying how they are different is what the admission officer is after.
Once students decide upon the topic, Mr. Topchik introduces something that journalists know of well but most students are strangers to. "In high school, they tip toe into an article," he said, while journalists capture their audience with a great "lead."
"They get frustrated about how to do it," he said, but he conveys a belief that a great lead can trump a mediocre essay. And when it comes with kicker that kills, so much the better.
Still, into the body of the essay, Mr. Topchik challenges students to rephrase their first drafts in a vernacular that isn't typical. It's a significant struggle and despite the educational benefits they probably have over their parents, a simpler past cannot be substituted by our hi-tech, high strung world.
"Their generation does not read - so their vocabulary is limited," he says. It follows then that this essay is something kids definitely don't want to do, but putting in a few sessions scaffolds students to a point where, he said, "It's no longer agonizing."
His fee is $250 to cover what usually amounts to about four sessions and is well below what he believes are inferior offerings that price out at about $1000. Regardless, he sees this as a hobby and payment comes full in another capacity. "They are the life blood of every culture," he said, and that makes up difference.