The “Grandma Essay” Everyone Warns You About…Is Not what you think!
I’m writing to tell you a story. This story ends with a college essay that became a eulogy. It was a topic no-no turned yes-yes: the “grandma essay” your counselor warned you about. But this story started as a young, earnest kid, J, clutched a pencil, and tried to tell me, like every other gritty kid I coach has told me, that he is determined.
Show me, I said. Tell me a story that shows me.
Or maybe it started differently. Maybe we were eating sandwiches while we worked together, sifting through his life, looking for particulars, and he mentioned how his grandma only liked her chicken sandwich this one particular way.
Uh-oh, he said “grandma.” Cue the sentimental violin chorus. Now, how a person likes a sandwiches can reveal a lot about personality– it’s true. But an applicant is supposed to be careful not to focus too much on other family members in the personal essay– right? Right, guys? And we ALL KNOW “the grandma essay” is soggy toilet paper of a topic, right? (Even if I’m personally a sucker for the elderly).
But my interest came from somewhere else.
My interest was peaked because of the look in his eye, the flicker that showed me that one comment about grandma had sent him to some gold-nugget inner place.
Grandma Essay was just an excuse to talk about determination
Over our sessions, I learned that J had always struggled to write, and like most struggling writers, it wasn’t because he didn’t have a lot to say or was short on fresh original thoughts about the world. He tweeted regularly, thriving in the spare character count. But saying something about himself at length IN WRITING was about as appealing as eating a chicken sub while sprinting 500 yard dashes. Better not.
However, grandma got him going. In more ways than one. As the essay developed, I learned from this earnest, straightforward writer that his grandma helped him when he was little by forcing him not to give up on himself, even before his dyslexia was properly diagnosed, but to do these tedious reading workbooks, which he tried desperately to escape.
Over the years, of course, he grew to see the point.
And now he got to help her while she dealt with her Cancer treatment. She still inspired him with her fighting spirit and firecracker wit (Yes, “the grandma essay” was totally redeemed!)
Grandma left this world, but not the essay
J learned so much about writing while crafting this essay, and applied it to his college work. He’s now very happy as a transfer at a new, true-to-his-taste school.
When I checked in with him over text, I added, “How’s Grandma?” I felt like I knew her after all this time, and so many drafts.
He told me grandma had passed away in May, And that he read his college essay at her funeral. Her funeral!
Because, he said, “It had to be done.”
Happy day for me. College essay as eulogy? Thank you, grandma.
I have long maintained that the college essay can be MORE for students (IF the student wants) than just a requirement of the application. The essays can have individual meaning and insight that affect a student in the present to know themselves and their values more deeply. I see now that J’s experience was the perfect example of that, an essay which had a life beyond the slot it was intended for.
What deeper purpose is at the heart of your essay? Not sure? Want to find out? Contact us. We’d love to talk with you about it.
PS That’s his real grandma up there looking stunning. She wants you to know that almost ANY topic can work for your college essay, even a supposed no-no, if you approach it the right way. Even a chicken sandwich.