There are a lot of places in the world where I expect to find great writing: the latest offerings of favorite authors, the hallowed pages of the classics, or the works of professionally trained wordsmiths, for example. One place where great writing caught me by surprise, however, is in a New York University college entrance essay, written by a man named Hugh Gallagher. Here’s what he wrote in response to the question, “Are there any significant experiences you have had, or accomplishments you have realized, that have helped to define you as a person?”
“I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.
I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.
Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.
I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer, I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat .400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.
I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.
I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago, I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.
But I have not yet gone to college.”
Every time I read this uproarious little masterpiece, the corners of my mouth leap up a few notches. As you read Gallagher’s outrageously specific descriptions of his outlandish escapades, it’s easy to forget that this is a college entrance essay. Which, at it’s core, it’s not; it’s fiction at its finest. Weaving a combination of ridiculous tall tales and strange but simple claims, Gallagher creates a playful, self-assured tone. His essay succeeds at being funny, engaging, original, and convincing at the same time. The best part, though, is how he subtly reveals his real-life attributes and abilities. He is a master of showing not telling, convincing us of his creativity, his great personality, his confident bearing, and his brilliant writing skills without actually mentioning them once.
This essay is an inspiring example of the kind of writing that we could be creating everywhere we go, in everything we do. Whether you’re hard at work on the Great American Novel or just filling out a college application, you have the power to make people laugh, to stir their imaginations, to turn the boring things in life into the most fantastic adventures. You can create great writing in unexpected places.