My father takes me down to the arroyo when I am so small that I do not yet reach his waist. My feet fumble across flaking desert skin and he pulls me along gently by my hand and tells me to be careful of small cacti and the bones of dead jack rabbits. He does not let me straddle the rift where the earth divides into repelling mounds of sand. Instead, he slips his hands beneath my arms and swings me around in a half circle, his red face wrinkling into a smile.
That morning, my father had crept into my room with the sun and shaken me into consciousness. “Get your sneakers,” he had whispered. “We’re going on a treasure hunt.”
It is minutes later now and we are trudging down an overgrown trail, tactfully descending the deep slopes of New Mexican land. Everything smells strongly of mud and salt and soaked manure from the horse barn down the road. I almost trip over a weed, but my father steadies me and says, “Almost there, baby.”
The arroyo is different than I have ever seen it. It is scattered with long, silver puddles. In the pink glow of the rising sun, the sand looks shiny and slippery. Around us, green tufts of vegetation burst from the earth in unpredictable patterns and yellow wildflowers with thin stems knock softly against each other in the wind.
My father tells me to wait and he steps down into the wet sand. I watch as his sandals sink deep into the ground and leave long footsteps. He crouches suddenly, and digs into the earth with a discarded stick. Then he stands, approaches me, and places in my hand something slimy and smooth.
“A pottery shard,” he says, in explanation. “From the Native Americans, who lived right here a thousand years ago. The rain washes them up. If we’re lucky, we’ll find all the pieces of an entire pot.”
I look down at the strange triangular stone and wipe the sand from its surface. He lifts me up in his arms, carries me back toward the house.
My father gives me a book about Georgia O’Keeffe for my fifth birthday. We read it together and he bounces me on his knee and licks his fingertips before turning the pages. He points at a landscape that looks like a rumpled tablecloth and tells me, “This is why we’re here.” I steal a flashlight and flip through the book under my covers at night. I touch the same glossy picture and whisper, “This is why we’re here.”
When I am 6 years old, the Sunday school teacher asks me what my father does for a living. I tell her he is an artist like Georgia O’Keeffe. I do not know that I am lying. I do not know that he hasn’t sold a piece in months. I do not know that my mother sits at the kitchen table after I go to sleep and cries because the mortgage is past due and she can’t figure out a way to tell me that this year, Santa Claus just might not make it.
For Christmas, my father gives me a sparkling blue stone he found in the arroyo. I say thank you and pretend I mean it. Later, I stand on the edge of our brick patio and wind up my arm and throw the rock as far as it will go. It disappears inside the bristles of a pine tree.
I do not say goodbye to the arroyo before shutting the car door and stretching the seatbelt across my chest. I do not say goodbye because I think that I won’t miss it. We are leaving New Mexico. We are going to New York where my father will get a real job and we will become a real family. We drive alongside a cliff, the rock rough and jagged and sprinkled with a thousand tiny diamonds. I press my finger against the glass. This is why we’re here.
When I am 16 years old, my father takes me back to New Mexico and we go once more to the arroyo. The neglected trail is long gone now and we stumble in our tennis shoes over dried up cacti and colorless desert flowers. I am too old now to hold my father’s hand. He walks a few steps ahead of me and I do not see his face.
The arroyo is bone-dry, littered with dented soda cans, beaten strips of tire and mud-stained garbage bags. Many monsoon seasons have left the sides of the arroyo tall and smooth, except for the dried roots of long-dead plants, still lodged in the dirt, which reach out toward us like skeleton hands.
My father crouches over and his shirt draws taut across his back. He delicately parts the earth with his fingers and searches for something that he will never find again.
“No more pottery,” he says. He looks at me and squints his eyes against the sun. “It must have washed far away by now.”
Suddenly comes to me the vague image of my father in ripped jeans, pressing a pottery shard into my palm.
I wonder if he, too, has washed far away.
Write Winning Scholarship Essays: The Simple, Quirky, Underdog Tale
Editor's Note: If you have this hunch that just one, amazing, polished essay can make-or-break your chances for college admission or needed scholarships, you're right. Essays are a big deal, not to be rushed or scuttled in your haste to send an application in. This series provides a college essay sample and tips on writing a strong piece. This is the first of three posts about writing great college essays.Want to know what winning scholarship essays look like? Take a look at this college essay sample from Paul Hastings, who won $1,000 through Get Educated's scholarships for nontraditional students.
Paul is 22 years old. That's a normal age for college, but he's a nontraditional student. For one, the Texas native will be attending school at Thomas Edison State College, a New Jersey school, fully online this fall. He also works full-time, has traveled the world, is an active blogger, and was home-schooled his whole life. He is keenly aware that his peer group is fully comprised of traditional brick-and-mortar college-enrolled students, and he honed in on that in his essay to illustrate just why he's so different.
Topic: What an Online College Degree Means To Me
Twice a year Get Educated provides several free grants for tuition grants, and like so many others, we have a “500 words or less” essay component to our application. This is our standard topic for everyone, every year, and Paul's application stood out in a major way.
Traits of Winning Scholarship Essays
I pulled out excerpts to illustrate the the top 3 terrific things about his essay. To see the full college essay sample, check out the PDF at the bottom.
College Essay Tip #1: Fly Your Freak Flag High
Paul's essay showed both humility and pride. It's a tough pairing, but he delved into the uncomfortable process of witnessing himself from other peoples' eyes in his essay. He opens with his family's educational history: Both his dad and brother attended prestigious programs at traditional colleges.
"They never had to deal with probing questions from relatives not satisfied with their educational choices. They never had to listen to the skeptical sighs of neighbors unconvinced that they were more than anything than a bum living in their parent’s house.
They never had to face the scrutiny of disappointed mentors who simply couldn’t understand that the rules of higher education were being rewritten. No, my friends never had to face that...
...but I did."
By pointing out the stigma of his path as perceived among his community and peer group, he's taking a risk, and revealing that it bothers him. That's admirable. Dare to expose yourself.
College Essay Tip #2: Let Loose With Levity
Experts across the spectrum agree that humor is a key to many winning scholarship essays. That simplistic tip cruelly overlooks how hard it is, as evidenced by the giant teams who write comedy TV shows, to make someone laugh. Humor might not come naturally to you. That's OK. There's a way to make your writing fun to read, without struggling to pry some joke out of a story that doesn't feel remotely funny to you. Paul's levity in his essay is evident in his word choice and phrasing.
"Hanging a graduation certificate on my wall next year has never been my driving goal. After all, it’s only a piece of cloth."
"Instead of being a slave to a professor’s schedule and syllabus, I can volunteer with non-profit organizations, spend time with dying relatives, and travel the world."
"Staying out of debt has been important for me from day one so studying online has been a no-brainer."
Other Ways to Show Levity in Winning Scholarship Essays:
- Vivid descriptions of yourself or the people or situations you write about.
- Playfulness of sentence length, or very short or comment-like sentences.
- Self-awareness, which gives a nod to the reader, that says 'Yes, I know that you're reading this. Hi.' This college essay sample imagines the readers' eyes rolling as they consider her application.
College Essay Tip #3: Simplicity Rules. If You Over-Explain, Edit!
Part of the charm of Paul's essay is, he tells us just what we need to know, and nothing we don't. There are lots of really interesting things about this guy. For instance, after talking with him, I know he helped his family send his older brother to a brick-and-mortar college by cleaning houses. And that he gained many credits towards his bachelors degree online from a community college while he was still in high school. He left that stuff out, though and stuck to the basics. He even used numerals in his essay, which made it easier to read!
"1. Flexibility: No other form of college education would have ever granted me the liberty that I’ve enjoyed."
Without being too brief, he stripped down the content of the essay to just what was needed, organized it well, and tied it up artfully. Check out the ending:
"Hanging a graduation certificate on my wall next year has never been my driving goal. After all, it’s only a piece of cloth. The road always been just as important, if not more, than the final destination. I could have played it safe and taken the normal route like everyone else. But no, no. Normalcy wasn’t for me. Excellence was."
Learn more about the Get Educated online scholarship program.
About the Author:Jess Wisloski is an established freelancer and has worked as a staff reporter at some of New York City's leading fast-turnaround publications including the New York Times, the Brooklyn Papers, and the New York Daily News.