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Let's Help this Sparkler's Cookie Essay Taste a Little Sweeter

Let's Help this Sparkler's Cookie Essay Taste a Little Sweeter

By Brandon Specktor

Sparkler confuzzledmuggle wrote this essay for the common college application, and elected the "choose your own topic" topic. This itself is a brave move that tells reviewers right away "my splendid yet disciplined imagination NEED NOT BE CONTAINED by your draconian attempts to focus me!" Good for you, confuzzledmuggle! Now, is her self-imposed topic a strong one? Let us find out together as confuzzledmuggle tells us a secret:

# # #
Let me tell you a secret. I cannot make chocolate chip cookies. This is embarrassing in itself, as chocolate chip cookies are widely considered as a simple, child-friendly cookie. Impossibly, it’s an even more embarrassing confession for me, considering the other sweet creations that take form easily under my guiding hands. Do you fancy an airy chocolate mousse? Maybe cream puffs or chocolate éclairs are more to your taste, little bombs brimming with vanilla pasty cream, velvety smooth? Or perhaps you crave a crème brulée, crusted with crackly burned brown sugar, crisped by hand with a kitchen torch? Please, give me a challenge.

But ask me to make chocolate chip cookies, and all that’s going to come out of that oven is disaster. That’s why my relationship with chocolate chip cookies is so complicated. Every time I try – and believe you me, I spend entire days devoted to creating a cookie that doesn’t make me weep like old meringue – the cookies never turn out. There is no recipe that I have not attempted, no combination of ingredients that I have not thrown together to test. I have studied under the tutelage of my grandma and my aunt, sages in all areas of sweet confections. I have experimented, tossing in clouds of flour and decreasing sugar; tapping in baking soda and baking powder, thinking with certain vindictiveness, “that should make them rise.” In a moment of desperation, I dumped yeast into the mixture, a decision that continues to haunt me (no one, certainly, will let me forget how those cookies turned out). What happened? I’ll never tell. That particular secret is locked up with the other skeleton in my oven, which surely belonged to the witch from Hansel and Gretel.

Still, every time I open the oven with high hopes and feel the wave of heat blasting me in the face, and watch the air bending in front of me…the cookies are still flat, hard, and smooshed together, like a chocolate chip amoeba. And every time, I force myself to eat the bittersweet result (since the rest of my family rejects my baked failure), promising myself that next time, I shall make the most glorious cookies my oven has ever had the pleasure to bake.

Even after all my kitchen struggles, I still haven’t found the perfect recipe. I still haven’t made cookies that rise. I still have a black mark on my record as a baker (and many chocolate smudges on my cheek). But even though I have yet to restore my mangled reputation, I don’t mind. It’s the feeling of flour nestled in my hair, aging me at least thirty years; the vision of creamy dough dotted with exclamations of chocolate chips; and the floating scent of vanilla that matters most, and whatever happens after that is going to be different, crazy, and completely wrong. But it will always be sweet, and I can always count on them to defy my expectations.
Maybe that’s how it should be.

# # #

Our thoughts:

This is a good topic, and a great first line. I was hooked by Katherine's voice right away! I think the body of the essay can be tweaked in a few specific ways to up the impact of what is already a solid highlight reel of confuzzledmuggle's creative spirit and integrity, and I'll get to that in a minute. But first!

Some grammar babble

Note: I read confuzzledmuggle's essay with my copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style open on the table next to my computer. It's the single most helpful book on writing I've ever read, and you should all keep one on your desk/in your backpack/duct taped firmly to your chest at all times.

Coupla little things. In the first paragraph, "considered as a simple…cookie" doesn't need the "as" in this case. You should only follow considered with as when you're using considered to mean "examined" or "discussed," e.g.:

"Today we'll consider (discuss) confuzzledmuggle's essay first as an example of style and content, second as a reason to procrastinate your own work."

Later on, "make me weep like old meringue" doesn't quite work as a simile yet, unless confuzzledmuggle is recalling a specific cooking venture when her egg whites actually started crying in the bowl. "Weep like eating old meringue" makes more sense, plus it conjures an image of confuzzledmuggle sobbing with a spoonful of dessert at her lips. Most of us have been there before.

Otherwise, confuzzledmuggle uses figurative language like a champ, and I laughed aloud like a doofus at some of her phrasing (esp. "the witch from Hansel and Gretel," "chocolate amoeba"). But, as Auntie Kat reminded us last week, it's important not to let your "writing skills get in the way of your writing," and there are a few phrases here that could serve confuzzledmuggle better if some of the flowery word choice and structure is pruned down a bit.

For example, "Impossibly, it’s an even more embarrassing confession for me, considering the other sweet creations that take form easily under my guiding hands" is a key sentence in our writer's argument for herself, but right now it's kind of detached ("take form under by guiding hands" is kind of a passive and clunky way of saying "cook") and a bit of a mouthful. confuzzledmuggle can boost the impact of this sentence by trading vague phrases like "sweet creations" and clunky adverbs like "impossibly" for specific, gut punching details:

"This confession is especially embarrassing for me, as my gooseberry pies ((or whatever)) have dominated every family Thanksgiving ((or whenever)) since I was old enough to work a whisk."

Doesn't it just flow better without those greedy adverbs trying to steal the show from the juicy details within? Look out for other sentences that can be condensed or specified with butt-kicking details that paint a more vivid picture of you as a person to complement prose that already paints a phenomenal picture of you as a writer. Every admissions essay is a story, and YOU are the main character, so it's important to play up the things that make you unique and memorable as much as possible! On that note…

Let's talk Content

We've got all the elements of an awesome, compelling story here: character (confuzzledmuggle!), conflict (cannot make these dingus cookies), suspense (burnt batch after burnt batch) and an ultimate epiphany that closes the story with a lesson and proof that confuzzledmuggle is a mature, intelligent person that any admissions person should be thrilled to add to their campus. Beautiful!

Right now the biggest story element that is missing here is scene. confuzzledmuggle gives us a lot of great narration, but it is unstuck in time and plays out more like a montage than that keynote scene of the movie that'll tug the heart-strings and sell confuzzledmuggle's story. What I suggest: Work those third and fourth paragraphs with all their great sensory details and promises of epiphany into a specific time you tried to make cookies (it can be a composite of several times, just so long as this story has a concrete time-frame to capture readers in a single compelling moment of conflict and realization). Describe it to us so we're right there in the room with you. SHOW us how you realized that the thrill of cooking (and, more importantly, life) is in the challenge and experimentation, not the result.

One last thing: Get rid of that final line. "Maybe that’s how it should be" comes too close to saying, "This is the point of my story," which is something that should (and already does) emerge organically through the narrative of the essay. Close instead with a well-described scene of our intrepid chef eating her grody batch of failed chocos with a smile on her face and BABLAM!, message shown, not told.

Awesome essay, confuzzledmuggle. Reframe these incredible details and descriptions as a narrative  with a specific time and place, and I bet you Chef Boyardee himself would invite you to what I imagine is an unparalleled culinary academy. (Sorry—I know nothing of baking culture.) Can't wait to taste the next batch.

For more tips, read this great article about how the best admissions essays are actually stories.

Want us to review your essay on SparkLife? Send it to contribute@sparknotes.com.

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Topics: Life, College Advisor
Tags: college, sparklers, college applications, writing, writing help, college essays, admissions essays, college admissions essays

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About the Author
Brandon Specktor

For 22 years, Brandon was a fat kid living in Tucson, AZ, which gave him lots and lots of time to write. He now works at a magazine in New York City, but still loves writing almost as much as he loves muffins.

Wanna contact a writer or editor? Email contribute@sparknotes.com.