Jeff might have taken it as a bad omen when he lost his voice the day
of his Princeton interview. But with a good-spirited interviewer who
supplied him with mugs of soothing hot chocolate, he successfully made
it through. He says that the inspiration for his application essay came
from the dean of admission, who advised him to focus on the essay. A
graduate of Norfolk Collegiate School, Jeff participated in swimming,
wrote for the school newspaper and became a National Merit Scholar.
He would like to work in diplomacy or international business.
The 20 Other Points - Princeton University
“He got a 1580, but he’s the dumbest kid I know." “Thanks, Steve," I reply.
Steve is my swim coach, and he decided to use this comment to break
the ice at a 5:30 a.m. swim practice in Raleigh, North Carolina. Or maybe
it was Goldsboro? Or Chapel Hill? I can’t remember. He was introducing
me—complete with my dubious superlative—to the coach of a swim team
with whom we were training. Our team was in the middle of a weeklong
“training trip," Steve’s euphemistic term for dragging 30 swimmers
across the state on a pool-hopping death march. We averaged five miles
at each of our three practices per day. There were no breaks, no recovery
periods and no easy practices. To an outsider, we must seem psychotic to
get wrapped up in this cultish little ritual. We are. But nevertheless we are
human beings and we needed something to get us through that week of
Hell. Eventually I began to realize that my position as “village idiot" might
give me both the opportunity to learn some lessons about human nature
and the ability to help my teammates through some very trying times.
After I received my SAT scores a few weeks before, I had tried to tell the
smallest number of people as possible. I’ve always been humble about my
successes, and something of this magnitude would probably draw more
resentment than admiration from my peers. So when Steve asked me how I
did, I told him privately. He was proud, but as I was walking away, he asked
(shouted, actually), “WHAT HAPPENED TO THE OTHER 20 POINTS?" Some
of the replies that followed were: “What 20 points?" “What’s he talking
about?" “You mean you got an 80 on a test?!" After my explanations, I
made a decision. I would transform myself into a harmless, clueless idiot savant and make the SATs look like a fl uke. Following the examples of Lucille
Ball and Art Carney, I gradually started to ask ditzy questions, trip and
fall in the pool and don the infamous “deer in the headlights" look when
things became complicated. Eventually my acting began to take hold; my
stupidity never failed to break tension and the 1580 became a joke rather
than a grade.
The training trip provided a unique opportunity to put my act to good
use. Since he conceived of the idea, Steve has always fashioned the trip
to be as much a test of emotional mettle as one of physical endurance. It
always takes place in the few days right after Christmas, so the frigid (yet
somehow never snowy) weather and even more frigid temperaments can
play symphonic havoc with our emotions. By the end of the second day, I
recognized that mood swings, bickering and short tempers were already
starting to affect everyone’s ability to perform; no one wanted to climb out
from under their blankets and parkas to go swim, and consequently the
swims were miserable, clock-watching marathons. So I began the sideshow
entertainment. Eventually the collective mood began to brighten, people
started to laugh and the last leg of the trip turned out to be one of the
most hysterically happy moments of the entire week. Were we slap-happy?
Probably. But no one there would ever deny the positive influence of laughter
both on our swimming and on our relationships.
The training trip wasn’t just a bunch of practices, nor was it an experiment
in behavioral psychology. It was a blessing in disguise that taught me a
great deal about myself. I learned that laughter is one of the best ways to
defuse confl ict and that I’m willing to generate it even at my own expense.
Had I not, I never would have created my slapstick alter-ego, and the training
trip probably would have resulted in one or two suicides. So you may
very well laugh at me, thinking I’m “the dumbest kid you’ve ever met,"
but rest assured I’m laughing along with you. I’m bright enough to know
what I’m doing; I DID get a 1580, after all! But let’s keep that information
quiet—I don’t want to seem like a braggart.
Why This Essay Succeeded
Jeff does many things in this essay. First, he is not ashamed to admit
that he plays the “village idiot" on his swim team. This ability to be
self-deprecating is an admirable quality and displays a certain level of self-awareness and self-confidence. Next, Jeff makes us privy to a secret:
this perception people have of him is based on a deliberate act. He is
really exposing his inner self to us—total strangers. Third, Jeff includes
concise examples and descriptions to show us how this “act" helped
to transform what may have been an unhappy experience into one no
one will ever forget. Our overall impression of Jeff is that he is a brilliant
young man who understands himself and the psychology of his
teammates—which of course is exactly what Jeff hopes we see.
Even though Jeff’s essay is ostensibly about his involvement with
swimming it really is a thoughtful portrait of his own psychology and
intellect. Again, this is always the underlying purpose of the admission
essay—to share with the colleges a slice of your life and to let them know
who you are beyond your grades and test scores.
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