By Daniel Dunaief
I have no doubt “Alice,” which is not her real name, is a dedicated dancer. I haven’t seen her perform, I haven’t read reviews of a show or even seen a sparkling résumé with copious awards. I also have no way, just by looking at her, of recognizing whether her movements are so refined and controlled that she clearly expresses the majesty of music through movement.
How do I know about her talent? A recent family acquaintance, Alice is a senior in high school who is applying to college. When I asked about her essay, she generously shared it. As a condition for reading her work and writing about it, I agreed to allow her to remain anonymous.
The college application process forces young adults to distill their lives onto the lines of a page. They have the unenviable task of sifting through experiences, memories, hopes and aspirations as they try to figure out what to include and what to exclude.
The latter is perhaps more challenging. Most of us could tell stories about our lives, mentioning the day of the week, the time of year, the names of other people on a trip to New Zealand or the food we ate that day. Those details could be relevant if they indicate something specific about the writer, or they could provide a dense fog through which a reader struggles to find a truth, passion or personal meaning.
Tempting as it might have been for Alice to mention her dancing success or memorable performances, she excluded those details.
Alice honed in on a sensory experience linked to her practices, performances and passion for dance: the smell of her shoes. Indeed, the first line of her essay draws the reader into her world immediately, suggesting that she’s worried about the foul aroma of her shoes spreading through her car.
Beginning an essay with a sensory experience generates an immediately relatable experience, even among those of us who have never stood under hot lights on stage and contorted our bodies in carefully choreographed productions. Readers, whether they are admissions officers, high school teachers or contest judges, have all had moments when they worry a smell can give us away. It doesn’t have to be an unpleasant scent, as we may have cooked a surprise dinner for our partner and don’t want that person to know about it until mealtime.
Alice goes on to describe how the smell reflects the hard work, pain and beauty connected with her dancing. We all have seen the bright light moments when people perform, whether they’re dancing ballet, catching a ball on a Major League Baseball field or sharing a poem they’ve written.
These moments and concerns in between the performances occur more frequently and capture more about Alice’s inner thoughts and drive. The smell becomes an unpleasant but hard-earned badge of honor.
Alice goes on to describe how these shoes mirror her participation in a pursuit that requires her to reach a level of perfection she suggests the body doesn’t achieve naturally. She adds an awareness of the individual nature of the performance, coupled with the fact that she’s never alone, surrounded by others whose feet have the same smell.
Through descriptions like these, Alice is revealing fine details of what she’s doing, the by-product of the effort she exerts and the shared sense of purpose she has with her fellow dancers.
College essays require a mental perspiration akin to that which affected Alice’s shoes. Through those efforts, however, writers not only reveal more about themselves, but they also create lasting impressions for readers searching for evidence of commitment and passion.