Mattie Edits: My Own Common App Essay From 2009!

I’m a content marketer by trade. My old life involved me creating original written content for different websites. The goal of that content was not to sell a product inherently. Instead, it was to attract readers to the site and provide them value. The concept is that by offering credible content for free upfront, the consumer will come to trust, appreciate, and remember that brand when they want to make a purchase.

It’s challenging to quantify the value or “return on investment” of content work. The structure works, in the same way Costco handing out those free samples works. But knowing what caused that success and how to repeat it can be tricky.

What ends up happening is an advanced marketing technique referred to by industry insiders as “throwing shit against the wall and seeing what sticks”. And I’ve done that. If you look at my previous work, it’s all sorts of stuff. I keep tabs on my writing responses and am always playing around with techniques and seeing what happens. The first data point I found was “write things as impactful as half-ideas“. But that’s like telling Psy that all he had to do to stay relevant was make another song as catchy as Gangnam Style.

But two weeks ago, the shit stuck. You all really liked my piece on the Costco essay. Thank you! I wrote 80% of it six weeks ago and forgot it existed until the day before posting it. Whoops!

I think what connected with people here was not just the piece, but that I did a solid job displaying how I edit essays. In particular, I say they’re good and then tear them to shreds line by line. I didn’t expect that to become my trademark, but like half of you specifically quoted that line when mentioning what you wanted me to do to your work. And I will if we work together.

The people have spoken. And what they want is more live essay work. I’m all for it, but my biggest problem is that essays can be hard to find. Because the internet can suck, it’s not safe for you to post your work in public. That sucks because if you could, there would be many more threads like “Can someone come to look at this?” That would help the student, but it would also allow guys like me to give more feedback. I would be way more likely to do that because I would know that anyone who reads the thread would benefit from my analysis. When I do it over DM, I’m just working for free.

So I have to be more creative! What I have today is my Common App essay from 2009. It got me into most schools I applied to. I’m going to analyze it the same way I do all essay work: line by line and with as much explanation and feedback as possible. I can also be an absolute dick because I know the writer will get over it.

If you have more ideas for fun essays I could do in this series, leave a message here about it. I plan to keep doing these because they’re fun, and also I think they do the best job of promoting myself not just as a knower of things, but also as an accomplished writer and editor whose students get into schools for a reason. Show don’t tell, ya know?

Onto the essay!

—–

How I tend to work is that I start by reading the entire essay over. I try (and fail) to not think of any feedback while reading. I read the whole thing and then come up with my overall thoughts. So let’s do that. Here’s my essay! I hope you like it!

A problem at my school is a lack of spirit. We have no football team and our “trophy case” consists of robotics awards and basketball trophies from the 80’s. Our mascot is an owl and when ten fans show up to watch a game, it’s considered a solid turnout. That’s why in junior year I decided to change things. For three days in late April, I stood near the lunch hall carrying a large poster board. On it were sign-ups for “Zombie Versus Humans.”

“Zombies Versus Humans” is a superior variation of the game “tag.” In normal tag, when the “it” person tags someone, that person becomes the new “it” and the cycle continues ad nauseum or until recess is over/someone falls down and starts crying. In Zombie tag, the tagged person joins the original zombie and they both chase all the other humans until only one human survives…or until recess is over/someone falls down and starts crying. My version took these rules and modified them slightly to work better in a high school setting.

In the three days I stood there, I heard two very distinct comments. Everyone younger than 17 told me they were super excited and signed up with all their friends. Everyone over 17 (the seniors) told me I was a moron to think something like this would work, especially at Athenian. I ignored the naysayers, and by the start of the game, 200 students and 15 faculty members had signed up. The teachers only seemed to be humoring me. I knew they assumed that the game would either not happen or be a complete disaster. They were wrong.

Day one was awesome. Things started slowly with me as the only zombie and many people unclear of the rules, but by noon of that day nearly half the school had been converted to “zombieism,” and the game was in full swing. During that day I heard two very distinct comments. Everyone younger than 17 told me they were having the time of their life and thought the game was incredible. Everyone over 17 (the seniors) told me they were sorry for doubting me, and begged me to be allowed in. I didn’t budge.

By day two, the game had taken on a life of its own. At that point, it became necessary for me to assume a general manager role, as many zombies and humans came to me with disputes over alleged taggings. I soon realized that picking sides was futile and that there had to be a better way. That day, I sent out a school email that stated all disputes would be decided via a game of rock-paper-scissors. Surprisingly, everyone was cool with that and it led to a better game as well as less stress for me.

The game ended that Thursday with a dramatic 212 versus 3 showdown. A sophomore won, after he spent two hours hiding in a spider hole he had dug the night before. As winner, he was given the coveted grand prize…a pack of Starbursts.

For that magical week, the Athenian campus, previously known for its lack of spirit and fun was instead alive and animated. No longer were these students drudging through May, begging for the year to end. These were teenagers having fun. The exercise had become more than a silly game. It had become proof that even in the smallest, quietest school, spirit is always still possible. I created that spirit, and it felt really good.

“Zombies Versus Humans” was great for the school but even more so for me. It was the first time I was in charge of an event this large and for it to go so well showed me that if I worked hard and had a plan, no obstacle was too large. Next spring, “Zombies Versus Humans 2: The Zombies Strike Back” will take place. And I guarantee that all the seniors will play.

First thoughts:

It’s good! I like it! These are the types of topics that work in essays. It links back to my weird hobby piece, but the cheat code for good essay topics is to do fun, exciting, unique stuff in high school to then write about. Imagine you’re an AO, and you have just read your 13th service-learning trip piece that day. You’re tired and want to get lunch. Then you pick up a file from some kid from California, and he’s writing about a game of school-wide tag. Ignore the college part; just as a human, that’s a cool topic and something you would read. By picking the right topic, I make everything within the essay easier to accomplish and more effective. I don’t think this piece got skimmed or forgotten about. I was the “zombie game” kid. Good job, Teen Mattie!

Now let’s tear this piece to shreds.

– Buy Grammarly Pro and plug this PoS into it. You’ll see why you need to be using Grammarly Pro. My 2009 comma game was SAWFT.

– Two paragraphs don’t belong here. I want them gone altogether. Can you guess which two? My hints are that they don’t add much to the story, are overly negative and pessimistic, and don’t say much about me. I could mention them as I find them, but one is the first paragraph, so let’s get right to it.

A problem at my school is a lack of spirit. We have no football team and our “trophy case” consists of robotics awards and basketball trophies from the 80’s. Our mascot is an owl and when ten fans show up to watch a game, it’s considered a solid turnout. That’s why in junior year I decided to change things. For three days in late April, I stood near the lunch hall carrying a large poster board. On it were sign-ups for “Zombie Versus Humans.”

– This is bad. The writing itself is fine. And there is a version of this essay that could work, but everything that comes after it does not make it relevant. This isn’t an essay about rallying the downtrodden Athenian School troops and making them dance to life’s soundtrack for the first time. It’s a silly “I did a cool thing” essay about zombie tag. This intro starts the essay on a negative note that then clashes with what comes after it. It’s also not about me. Athenian is not the one applying to college – I am. No one cares about my school, especially if all I have for it is Haterade. We cut this entirely, and now we have 84 delicious new words to play with.

– OK 59 words. I like, “For three days in late April, I stood near the lunch hall carrying a large poster board. On it were sign-ups for “Zombie Versus Humans*.”*

I don’t think we need anything else. That’s the new first paragraph. One might even call it a hook.

“Zombies Versus Humans” is a superior variation of the game “tag.” In normal tag, when the “it” person tags someone, that person becomes the new “it” and the cycle continues ad nauseum or until recess is over/someone falls down and starts crying. In Zombie tag, the tagged person joins the original zombie and they both chase all the other humans until only one human survives…or until recess is over/someone falls down and starts crying. My version took these rules and modified them slightly to work better in a high school setting.

– Am I funny? I think so. I sure hope so. But sometimes I read my old work, and it’s just…bruh. I get what I was trying to do with the parallel sentence structure. But it’s too much effort and word count for a punchline that doesn’t land. I remember editing these with my mom, and I remember her telling me my jokes weren’t funny. I was 17 and me, so I kept a lot of them. The one here isn’t funny.

– I don’t want me getting lost in the sauce, but this could use more info on how the game worked. I remember that the rules were you were safe inside but not outside. That meant students had to sprint from classroom to classroom to escape. Zombies all had to wear a sheet of paper with a “Z” on it if they wanted to tag someone. Those are fun details that provide both exposition and flavor to the story.

  • IT’S NAUSEAM

In the three days I stood there, I heard two very distinct comments. Everyone younger than 17 told me they were super excited and signed up with all their friends. Everyone over 17 (the seniors) told me I was a moron to think something like this would work, especially at Athenian. I ignored the naysayers, and by the start of the game, 200 students and 15 faculty members had signed up. The teachers only seemed to be humoring me. I knew they assumed that the game would either not happen or be a complete disaster. They were wrong.

– Huh. I don’t know what to think about an antagonist in a Common App essay. They don’t come up much because there usually isn’t space to introduce and defeat a foil in 650 words. I don’t hate it, tho? It’s a much better foil than Athenian being lame. You can see how Athenian isn’t even lame by my own story’s standards. 75% of kids were fired up to play. This is a fun, high-energy essay. I’m neat and fun, and the game was neat and fun, and in college I’ll be neat and fun, and Vanderbilt why did you say no.

– No need for the teacher part. They never come up again.

Day one was awesome. Things started slowly with me as the only zombie and many people unclear of the rules, but by noon of that day nearly half the school had been converted to “zombieism,” and the game was in full swing. During that day I heard two very distinct comments. Everyone younger than 17 told me they were having the time of their life and thought the game was incredible. Everyone over 17 (the seniors) told me they were sorry for doubting me, and begged me to be allowed in. I didn’t budge.

– The senior payoff is aight—bit sudden tho. I feel like the play is to move the dramatic ownage of said seniors further down. Make it the climax. Or not. Were they really that mean to you, Teen Mattie? What did they do to you?

– So now the depressing school plot device is gone. We need another theme. Most great Common App essays have both a what and a why/how. The what is the game itself. The why/how is my personality and decision making that made the story possible. It’s almost as if those were two partly-developed concepts that could then be combined into one narrative…

By day two, the game had taken on a life of its own. At that point, it became necessary for me to assume a general manager role, as many zombies and humans came to me with disputes over alleged taggings. I soon realized that picking sides was futile and that there had to be a better way. That day, I sent out a school email that stated all disputes would be decided via a game of rock-paper-scissors. Surprisingly, everyone was cool with that and it led to a better game as well as less stress for me.

The game ended that Thursday with a dramatic 212 versus 3 showdown. A sophomore won, after he spent two hours hiding in a spider hole he had dug the night before. As winner, he was given the coveted grand prize…a pack of Starbursts.

– Oh hell ya. These paragraphs kick ass. This. I want more of this.

– We probably have ~200 words to play with after cutting some stuff. I think what I’d want to be added back in is a few more rounds of:

  1. There’s a problem
  2. Teen Mattie comes up with a wacky solution to fix things and keep the party going

– I mentioned in the Cosco piece, but something I like to see is when the essay “shows” the student’s personality without getting hammy. I don’t want some line that’s like, “I’ve always rushed into things without thinking, but then I’m clever and do something fun and different to disguise the fact that everything around me feels like it’s on fire.” Instead, present yourself being that type of person via your actions and trust the reader to pick up the subtext.

So I want more of this. More problems. More ingenious solutions.

Some things I remember:

  1. People kept cheating. They would get tagged and say they weren’t. So I wrote down every human’s name on the other side of that poster board and hung it in the main hall. When a zombie tagged a human, they would Sherif them to the board and proudly cross their name off with a sharpie. This worked great because everyone came to know who the steadily declining humans were.
  2. Teachers got mad that students were sprinting into classrooms full speed. I made it so that they only had to be touching a building’s door to be safe. So then classes would be interrupted by the sound of teenagers slamming into it at full speed instead. I instituted a “zombie teacher” policy where any teacher could eliminate a student if they were being too disruptive.

– Those stories fit in right there between the two paragraphs listed. I think those add so much more flavor and better describe me than hating on Athenian does. (BTW I went to The Athenian School in Danville, CA. If anyone here goes there now, DM me. Also, tell Phillip I say hi.)

– It’s “Email”, dude.

For that magical week, the Athenian campus, previously known for its lack of spirit and fun was instead alive and animated. No longer were these students drudging through May, begging for the year to end. These were teenagers having fun. The exercise had become more than a silly game. It had become proof that even in the smallest, quietest school, spirit is always still possible. I created that spirit, and it felt really good.

– *flush*.

“Zombies Versus Humans” was great for the school but even more so for me. It was the first time I was in charge of an event this large and for it to go so well showed me that if I worked hard and had a plan, no obstacle was too large. Next spring, “Zombies Versus Humans 2: The Zombies Strike Back” will take place. And I guarantee that all the seniors will play.

– I guess I’d change “had a plan” to “was quick on my feet”.

– If we had more words, you could probably get something more in here. Maybe open it up to life, I guess? But honestly, I like it as it is. We go right from the big Starburst finale to the conclusion.

– Don’t like the senior stuff. Cut all of it, including the lines in paragraphs above.

– Fun contest! “And I guarantee that all the seniors will play.” is out. I need a cute conclusion but can’t think of one. The best I have is, “I already have the poster board and Starburst ready to go”. But that sucks! How would you end this instead?

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