This is Not a College Entrance Essay

When grad school asks for a autobiography, you can’t take it sitting down.

It began with a thought on my front porch: “Look, Fred! This one’s got a beard!” Which is what the doctor who brought me into the world said when he pulled me from my mother’s womb. I didn’t so much have a beard as a head of curly black hair (albeit covered in blood and other bodily, baby, amniotic gunk). But what an entrance into life!

My thought on the front porch had to do with graduate school, which is where I am currently applying. I’m trying, for no reason known to man, to get an MFA in poetry. I want to study words and more words, and then write these words, and never ever earn a penny in my life. I think this is noble. I don’t care if you think it’s stupid.

But the point is — and I do have one — that I am required to write essays to supplement these applications, and this is something I thought I was through with when I applied to college. But here I sit, a college graduate, moved back to my college town for lack of anything better to do with a year off from school. And I am writing college entrance essays again.

Only this time around, there’s so much goddamn pressure. I mean, not only am I vying for one of six spots, in most cases, when there are hundreds of applicants, but you have to keep in mind that we are talking about creative writers here. People who are supposed to be ingenious and witty and forthright with words.

I want my essay to be eye-catching and memorable. But how can I when the topic is: “Tell us why you want to apply to [insert name of school here]” or “Discuss your literary and reading life.” Excuse me, but I’m above that.

Ha! Did I just make you roll your eyes? I was kidding. I’m not above that. I’m perfectly happy to spend hours telling anyone who asks about my literary life or why I want to apply to such-and-such a school.

But for the love of turtles! How can I possibly make that interesting? How in the green, green world can I make myself stand out? This question has brought me to my knees and to tears, at the same time.

But one school (a nameless, wonderful school) asked the right kind of question. And I hate them because this question is far too difficult. Are you ready for it?

No, no, you’re not. I must prepare you.

First, imagine yourself, harmless ex-student, rifling through piles and piles of papers that will (with any luck) get you into graduate school and let you make something of your life. You are hopeful. You are tired. You want this process to be over. You are reading essay topics, comparing them to each other in the hopes that you can write maybe five essays that will suffice for the requirements of all seven schools you’re applying to.

(Author’s note: I have now written about 500 words. Keep this in mind.)

The light is dim. You are still hopeful. You decide to get a snack: Jolly Rancher jelly beans. Chewy and delicious! But back to business. You pick up the last piece of paper (lying to your left). You flip it over. You drop it.

Write an autobiography (500 words)”

And there is it. Your one shining chance and your ultimate ugly demise. First, you are elated. Yes! Yes! You think, Here is a topic that will allow my true colors to shine, that can reveal my witty underbelly with the tragic, happy, clever story of my life!

But then you look again, and your heart drops to a place far, far below your stomach. You realize how few words 500 is. In the last 500 words I have not managed to relate events that took place in less than 30 minutes. Now you tell me how HOW will I write my entire life in 500 words?

Obviously, the trick is that I must only touch upon the highlights — skim over the boring, teenage years, and get right into the meat of it. But that’s not really what my life is about. There is not much meat. So far, my life has been a series of mildly spicy appetizers.

And I’d love to talk about these tasty bits for pages and pages, but no — in a mere 500 words, I must reveal the deep secret question of who I am. The task that lies before me is too large. It cannot be conquered.

Or that’s what I thought at first. But then there was the porch, and the thought, and I knew how to begin. And all a girl can ever do is begin at the beginning and go until the end. Probably the best part of my life happened in events I don’t even remember.

So I sat down and I plugged away. I typed and deleted, and typed some more. I printed, I crossed out paragraphs. I had to make the choice between being eloquent or having a point, and I chose eloquent. Then I changed my mind; then I changed my mind again. I ended up with a garbled mess of language that is virtually indecipherable as the story of anyone’s (or anything’s) life.

And, oh, was I ever proud. When you try to write something that will stand out of the crowd, when you really sit down and try to relate to a rapt audience the important events of your life (which you scarcely remember at all), you come to realize that you are a mediocre, trifling, small person with nothing much to say.

But the upshot is that I’m pretty sure that’s how most people view their own lives. I mean, you might think you’re pretty fun and entertaining, and you might actually have a good story or two — like how, on your 21st birthday, a drunk man that you did not know picked you up — literally — in the parking lot of a bar and spun you around as your bewildered friends stood by and gaped at the spectacle. You really might have a good story or two like that.

But can you really stack those kinds of stories up next to each other and claim that they amount to the story of your life? Can you honestly say you’ve done anything great, something that changed the world, or at least tasted good?

Well, the truth is, most people haven’t changed the world, and some people haven’t even changed their underwear.

And so, what you realize when you finally sit down and write a 500-word autobiography is that no one really has that interesting of a life — it’s all in the way you view the world, all in the way you react to the mundane daily rituals of life. And that’s what makes you who you are. That’s what makes the world turn every day. It’s not gravity or physics or Isaac Newton. No, it’s your view of the world.

I think the world spins, and thus, it does. And so goes it. And so I go about my life, trying to make graduate admissions workers smile, and believe they’ve really got a genius on their hands.

So, I’ve done it now; I wrote the essay. And I have no idea if it’s good. I only know the first sentence will catch their eye: “Look, Fred! This one’s got a beard!”

Article © 2001 by Caryn Ellis