We talk a lot about topics to avoid. Avoid writing about death, avoid writing about grandparents, avoid writing about volunteer experiences, and avoid things that could be read as you trying to ‘impress’ the reader — we want to engage the reader, not to show off. And then, sometimes, there is a way of bringing together a handful of those “don’ts” to create a piece that is engaging, beautiful, and that does one of our favorite things: it proves that even our rules aren’t really rules at all, they’re guidelines.
The three “don’ts” that this essay brings together are:
- an international experience
- a grandparent
- and volunteering (or, to be more precise, a medical experience where she was shadowing a surgeon, so not volunteering exactly but close enough that it falls into the “ehhhhhh, maybe this should be avoided” zone).
To make this work, we spent some time thinking about one of my favorite things: form. This is the how of an essay. How does it look? How does it feel? Basically, how is it structured?
After working with the student for a number of hours (writing a strong essay isn’t exactly a speedy process, so always start early), we realized that there was one tie that could bring together all of her different ideas: her German heritage. Not far-off relatives that she only thinks of when eating bratwurst, but something that is a core piece of who she is. She spends significant time in Germany (it’s where she had the surgeon shadowing experience), speaks the language, and is rooted in the culture. It’s an authentic piece of her, and something she can integrate into an essay, using it to bind together a variety of ideas, without it becoming the essay.
The way in? The German sayings her grandmother, her oma, says to her.
“Angst macht den Wolf grösser als er ist” - “Fear makes the wolf larger than he is”
Four of these small but meaningful sayings became the ties that bind the essay together. Literally. The ‘body’ of the essay is broken up into three short vignette, or scenes, and the sayings are placed between them. Each was chosen because it punctuates the one above it, while also intro-ing the one that follows. It helps that the vignettes are illustrative, able to be interpreted beyond what the student wrote. There is a subtext that they introduce and support that offers the reader a deeper experience, but this depth isn’t pushed, which is why it works.
The final piece of the essay that is truly wonderful is that it ends light. It doesn’t search for some greater meaning and existential discovery. At the risk of being redundant, it is small. Here is the ending:
I walked down the stairs towards the lunchroom. I hadn’t eaten since that morning, but I had no appetite. My mind was racing, but my body was static as I sat down for the first time in four hours. It was the first time I had seen a surgery in real life, and I was struggling to process what I had just watched. I pushed my potato salad and sausage away with my fork. I imagined the patient and his daughter reuniting after surgery and hugging each other. I was no longer afraid. Staring at my plate, I smiled as I remembered:
“Alles hat ein Ende nur die Wurst hat zwei!” - “Everything has an ending, only the sausage has two!”
So what does this teach us? The rules we lay out for essays exist for a reason — they work. In the vast majority of cases, they should be followed. Especially if you don't work with us. But when you have the time and the patience to work on an essay over many hours and over many weeks (or, in this case, a few months), we can build something that rejects even our own rules, but that becomes one of the best pieces of the year.