Here’s proof positive that your best essay topic lies deep within your soul and is not the first one that comes to mind. I attended a college essay workshop at the National Association of College Admission Counselors meeting last fall. In the workshop, “The College Essay Guy,” Ethan Sawyer, took us through a brainstorming exercise that led me to write what follows. Without the exercise, I never would have considered this topic. It isn’t about anything I’ve done with my life. It doesn’t highlight some grand accomplishment. Yet if I were applying to college today, I would confidently submit this essay, knowing it reveals the essence of who I am. I look forward to taking students through Ethan’s brainstorming exercise this year, and I can hardly wait to see the results.
A visit from our elderly Uncle Max was always a treat, but this time he had surprises for us. My two sisters—one older, one younger—each got a crisp five-dollar bill, so I expected one, too. But when Uncle Max extended his wrinkly hand, it wasn’t holding a bill. In his palm was a coin—a gold one imprinted with the year 1905, originally valued at five dollars. Along with the coin, he gave me a handwritten note on pale blue paper: “Knowing you,” it said, “you will put this to good use.”
I think I was eight, maybe ten. Four decades later, I can’t recall how my sisters spent their five dollars, but I can tell you the exact whereabouts of the coin. It earned a place nestled inside a small silver box, along with the note, folded in half and in half again. The little box and its contents traveled with me when I moved across the country three times, first with my parents and sisters, later for college and a job. I kept the coin safe, until I nearly sold it.
As a young television news writer, I didn’t make much money. Tempted by a trip to Cancun and needing a living room sofa, I realized I might be able to have both if I sold the coin. I investigated. It was worth about $800—a fortune to me at the time. But I couldn’t do it. Despite the lure of palm trees and plush pillows, something in my soul told me the coin wasn’t for sale. “Knowing you…” Uncle Max had written. Did he know me?
The coin stayed in the silver container along with the note, along with me, as I moved across the country yet again, got married, and had two children. Many years later, my oldest son graduated from high school. As we started packing for college, I wanted to give him something symbolic to keep close. By luck, I found a canvas pouch with a quotation on the front by Steve Jobs, the most famous dropout from my son’s college. “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” it said. Into that pouch I tucked a note, along with the little silver box containing the 1905 gold $5 coin.
On move-in day, I slipped the pouch into a drawer where I knew he’d find it after I left. He never said a word. Six weeks later, I visited my son at college. When I peeked in his drawer, the pouch was still there. We exchanged a look of understanding. Knowing him, he will put the coin to good use.