Hugh Gallagher College Application Essay

College essays give you an opportunity to make your application stand out, but do your essays make you stand out in a negative way? 

They might if they include these "red flags": 

1. Generic “Why Us?” essays

If a university asks why you want to attend their school and you write an essay that can be used for multiple schools, you did not do your job. This question implies that you should either visit the school or research it (website, videos, talk to former students, etc). Your response should be planned and thoughtfully consider how you’ll fit on their campus.

Admissions officers have stated that they sometimes receive essays that have another school’s name in it. “I’d love to go to Brown University because I think Harvard’s library is awe-inspiring., and I'm an avid reader. Face-palm.

Instead, look for specific details about the school AND why you like them. Instead of flattering the school, really envision yourself there. Perhaps you want to join the Mahjong club because you played with your grandma every Sunday, or maybe you’re excited to join the crew team because you want to challenge yourself to wake up early.

Here's my article on how to tackle the "Why Us?" essay. 

2. Overtly trying to impress

I always laugh when someone sends me the satirical college essay by Hugh Gallagher who thought it was ridiculous that a college would request an essay on the accomplishments of someone barely 17. He initially wrote it for a writing competition but later said he sent it to colleges as a writing sample.

He starts with, 

“I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row."

The essay continues to include more outlandish accomplishments (read full essay here) and concludes with,

“I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

But I have not yet gone to college.”

This brilliantly captures a predicament for college applicants: how can I impress admissions teams and make myself stand out and also still be a teenager?

The simple answer is to stop trying to impress them so much. Most of the college essay prompts request a personal narrative, a personal story. Most admissions teams are not expecting you to have cured cancer and have scaled Mount Everest (although you could probably have done both and still not get into Stanford; I kid, I kid). They are looking for an authentic, well-told story from your life that tells them something likeable about you. It’s your self-awareness and storytelling that really captures their attention. It’s the student who shows he’s trying to be a better friend rather than the student who writes about how he never leaves the library who is more likeable. Admissions counselors are not only looking for students who will perform well at their school, they’re looking for students who will make someone a nice roommate or who will contribute to the school culture in some way.

Let the rest of your application help you shine as an academic; use the essays to show aspects of your personality that the admissions team can get elsewhere on your application. Own who you are; be excited about who you are, and watch admissions teams feel the same way.

3.  Your parents wrote your essay (or played a major role)

“Can admissions teams really tell if my mom wrote my essay?”

“Yes.”

If you want to immediately send a message to admissions teams that you lack integrity, then have an adult write your essay for you.

Parents often think that admissions teams want you to impress them like the section above discusses. It’s readily apparent to anyone who’s reading your essay that an adult wrote it: it typically includes different syntax and diction than a 17-year-old would use.

Also, it’s quite easy to fall into the “too many cooks in the kitchen” trap. Only allow one or two people to give you an honest opinion of your essay to guide you. If you ask 5 people to edit it, the voice and style will be inconsistent, and it will sound like 5 people wrote it.  

So, what do you do if your parents are trying to hijack your essay?

First, recognize that they are a) trying to help and b) want you to succeed; at the same time, recognize that a) it lacks integrity and b) it will cause disagreements.

It’s better to do it on your own, ask an English teacher or guidance counselor for help, or get coaching from a professional.

I made a video on how to handle this situation.

4. You’re a complainer

I remember my guidance counselor told me that my college essay could be about why my grades dipped in my junior year. I wrote about how getting my learner’s permit coincided with my mom’s undiagnosed illness that prevented her from driving. I had missed a lot of school to take her to doctor’s appointments, and I had a hard time keeping up with chemistry and math. My focus was on being grateful to be able to help my mom and how I learned to juggle my home and school responsibilities.

Although you do have the opportunity to “explain,” make sure your essay’s purpose isn’t to “complain.”

Some students have written essays about switching schools and cite “bad teachers” or “not a good school” as their reason. It shows that you look for what’s wrong instead of what’s right; problems instead of solutions. A better focus would be on how felt the new school was a better fit for you and how the environment (and your appreciation for it) helped you to thrive.

One student spent half his essay discussing how bad his family member is at planning ahead and how it got them in a dangerous predicament. It came across as a 650-word complaint, and the reader learned nothing about the writer except that he finds his family member annoying. By switching his tone from complaining to appreciating the humor of the situation, the whole essay shifted in a positive direction.

When you read through your essay, look for any times in which you put others down (even inadvertently), and revise it.

Red flags stem from a lack of awareness of what admissions teams are truly looking for; quite simply, they want you to be yourself. Be authentic, lean toward positive interpretations, write the essay yourself, and really, don't try so hard, and you'll avoid these red flags. 

Happy Writing!

This article was written by Jaclyn Corley, the founder of TheCollegeEssayCaptain.com.  Her mission is to empower college and career applicants tell their stories powerfully. 

I hadn’t seen this for years, and it took a few minutes of searching to pull it up, including remixes claiming to be the original. It was written by Hugh Gallagher in 1989, and won a 1990 Scholastic writing contest.  He reported that he sent it to at least one college when he applied in ’89. (You may also know Gallagher as Antwerpian pop sensation VON VON VON.  More from him on his website.)

I repost it here for posterity and formatting, as an additional copy of the “OG platinum version” hosted by Prof. Susan Stepney. It has been published elsewhere: in Harper’s and TheGuardian in 1994 & 5, and on Alec Saunders’s blog, where commenters noted heavy reuse by Kevin Gilbert, and include the niece of one of the author’s NYU profs!

Links to variations are welcome.  Common bits people change include “slurs for Cuban refugees”, “I cook Thirty Minute Brownies”, “scouted by the Mets”, “covert operations for the CIA”, and the last sentence.  Update: corrected to the ur-version thanks to Hugh’s comment and Susan’s archive!

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.

I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.

I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.

I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

But I have not yet gone to college.



It displeases me to see that you are not displaying the original text. Yours looks like it has been added to and modified by someone without regard for the flow and humour of the original. Changes like MI5->CIA, being scouted by the METS, translating racial slurs, and cooking 30 minute brownies in 20 minutes, make it a lesser piece.

Anyway, here is the original:

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.

I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran of love, and an outlaw in Peru.

Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my back garden. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.

I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby d|ck, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for MI5. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on holiday, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.

I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prize-winning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

Comment by drouvoum 12.20.08 @ 12:13 am






















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