My College Essay

Over on the University of Chicago Class of 1991 Facebook page, one of my classmates asked if any of us could remember what essay questions the College asked of us when we were applying (there were several and you got to choose). As it happens, not only do I remember the essay question, I also — perhaps not surprisingly for me — still have the essay that I wrote about it.

The question was, paraphrasing, “Name a piece of art that profoundly affected you and explain why it did.” Below is the essay I wrote. Note: to best provide you an accurate glimpse of my 17-year-old brain, I have resisted copyediting the piece, so it contains all the tense mismatches and other copy/grammar errors present at the time. Also, I’ve appended at performance of the piece of art in question so you can have that as context. Please be aware it is not my high school choral class singing it.


My College Essay:

It is not very difficult for me to pinpoint the one work of art that I feel has affected me the most. It is a composition by Felix Mendelssohn, the title of which I am not entirely sure. The opening lines were “Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt” and I believe that is also the title. While it is easy for me to say which work of art has affected me, it is a little harder for me to explain exactly why. 

I have never been conventionally religious. Although I was baptized Lutheran, I have never to my knowledge attended a Lutheran service. As it is, I have not been voluntarily inside of church for the purpose of worship since I have been able to make decisions for myself. This is not to say that I think religion is not a good thing. It is just that because I was never registered in a religious atmosphere at home. I did not feel the need for it in other parts of my life. Actually, I feel this lack of bonding to a religion has been a helpful thing for me. I like to thank that it has allowed me to be more objective in my own personal pursuit of what I feel is the truth. It has also allowed me to enjoy what I’m doing with whomever I’m with, without worrying about repercussions in another world. This may or may not be a good thing. 

So when I was presented in my singing class last year with this medicine piece, I really thought nothing of it besides noting that it was in German that it was a piece praising God. And to me it was just another piece of music to sing. 

It didn’t remain that way for long. 

Why? Two reasons. First singing in German is no small feat. I am presently taking German as a class, and one of the things that has been noted about me in the class is the way I can take an innocent German word, and twist it through my hideous pronunciation into a seething mess of verbal slag. My attempt at singing German was for a time an exercise in language mutilation. 

Second, I was, along with the rest of my vocal section, having a bit of trouble hitting some of the high notes in the piece. One of the reasons I found out later was the fact that I was singing tenor when I am actually a bass. I did not know this at the time and was therefore at a loss to explain my inability to hit those notes. It got to a point where my choral director had decided that she would just have a certain few members sing the section that contained all the inaccessible high notes and I was certain I wasn’t going to be one of them. 

This annoyed me. Not only because I didn’t like the fact that here was something I couldn’t immediately do, but because that part I that I would be excised from was my favorite part in the whole piece. 

I sat down to work. I stretched my voice until I thought my vocal cords would snap. I worked on my pronunciation until I could recognize words intelligently. I sang loudly and even if I couldn’t comprehend the words I was singing or the meanings behind them, the least I could do was make it look like I was having a swell time anyway. I did all of this and it worked. I was allowed to sing the whole piece when we performed our choral concert. 

Now, being able to sing this piece at this point meant simply that I had overcome the obstacles that had stopped me before. It wasn’t that I wanted to sing the song because of the song itself, other than I like the tune and I thought it sounded good when the whole choral group sang it together. We had had the words explained to us at one point by our German teacher. I wasn’t terribly impressed. There was one line in the song that translates into “we are sheep in his pasture.” I didn’t usually compare myself with a sheep and when I do I usually come out favorably. 

So as a piece of religious and personal expression, I wasn’t interested in it. I must truthfully say, then, that I was surprised when as we sang this piece during our coil program the most wonderful feeling came over me. And I must say it wasn’t just me; when I looked at one point at the rest of the choal group. I remember the thinking that I had never seen a happier group of people. And it wasn’t just happy. It was joyful

This feeling continued through the piece, climaxing for me at this section with all the high notes. Usually, I worried about hitting those notes, but when I sang them, they were right there, right where they should be, and I didn’t have to strain, or worry or anything. They were there, and I sang them, and everyone sang them with me, and I can honestly say I don’t remember a time when I have felt more content. 

In the movie Chariots of Fire there is this scene in which Olympic runner Eric Liddell is talking to his sister in the Scottish Highlands. Eric’s sister is worried about her brother’s ambitions in the Olympics interfering with his plan to go to China and become a missionary. 

Eric soothes his sister by telling her that God had made him for a purpose: China. “But He also made me fast,” he says, “and when I run I can feel his pleasure in me. Not to run would be to dishonor him.” 

I think that when I sang that song, I felt His or Her or Its pleasure in me. Not in me personally, although I like to think that has something to do with it, but His pleasure going to me, through me, and out of me. The hard part about this is explaining just what that feeling is like, but I have felt it before then, and I realized that I feel it when I am doing those things which are important to me: singing, acting, playing my drums, or writing, and most definitely when I am with my friends and we are laughing and having a good time. 

I feel that when I’m doing these things, and I think it is because this is what God, for lack of a better term, wants me to do. The ultimate aim of my life is eventually to make the world better place than it was when I came in, and when I do those things through which I intend to do that, I can feel His pleasure just as I can feel my own. 

I’m still not conventionally religious. I do not go to church and I do not pray or ask for guidance. I do worship, however in my own way. The important thing about the Mendelssohn song was that it showed me how.

— JS

35 Comments on “My College Essay”

  1. I’m impressed to learn that you speak and sing German. That’s something I never knew before. Lovely piece. And, by the way, you wrote almost as well then as you do now.

  2. Amazing insight for 17. And how many of us stayed on those original paths that we thought we were meant for, or truly loved it if/when we did?

  3. Wendy:

    I wouldn’t say I speak German. I would say I took it for several years as a class and as a result know just enough to be thoroughly confused in two separate languages. But thank you!

  4. My high school choir teacher tested each of us to determine the proper voice we sang, so I’m surprised that yours didn’t, or maybe it was adolescence playing tricks and changing you around. I agree with your younger self that music is one of those things that can overcome the usual barriers to an other world, that we’re usually not aware of, and that religion may or may not assist with that.

  5. Ich wünschte ich wäre in diesem Alter in der Lage gewesen solch einen Essay zu schreiben und überhaupt Mendelssohn Bartholdy so zu schätzen.

    (Und an die deutschen Leser: Ich hoffe Ihr alle habt gewählt. Im Zweifelsfall habt Ihr noch ca. 18 Minuten Zeit)

  6. “I didn’t usually compare myself with a sheep and when I do I usually come out favorably. ”

    Think I know this guy.

  7. This reminded of my days in high school choir. We’d sing some pop, some jazz and one classical piece each term. At the start, we’d be excited by the pop stuff and hate the classical. By the time it came for a concert, we would love the Bach and hate the Bacharach. I remember that feeling of doing a complex classical piece and having it all come together and there was a feeling almost of ecstasy. Thanks for the memory. And good essay!

  8. Heh. I answered a similar question for the UofC entrance exam (a recent book or movie I enjoyed and why) with an essay on An American Werewolf in London. Needless to say, the imp of the perverse had something to do with this :-}. I think I did a reasonably good job, but I was also a legacy candidate with good SATs, so maybe that let me in in spite of that rather than because of that essay. Never regretted the choice of topic, though :-}.

  9. Overly long explanation removed – but that feeling is why I’ve been singing in choirs and chorales for over 40 years. When you’re in an excellent group, that truly knows the piece and knows each other to absolute perfection, it intensifies even more. There’s nothing like feeling a 100+ person choir as one organism, to the point where it feels like you open your mouth, and the whole choir pours out of you. Absolute ecstacy.

  10. When he was a boy Yehudi Menuhin had the conviction that if he played his violin well enough it would make everything better for everyone. [Menuhin]: “I wanted to play Bach’s great Chaconne for unaccompanied violin in the Sistine Chapel. I thought it would bring peace to the world.

    from an interview with Richard Ingrams, April 10, 2019, in the blog “The Oldie.”

  11. Amazing essay. I couldn’t write one that good now, let alone at 17, and I won several essay-writing contests in high school. Enjoyed it very much.

  12. Are you really a bass? I don’t know a lot about singing ranges, but from hearing your speaking voice (which is in roughly the same register as mine) I’d have guessed baritone.

  13. Thanks for sharing this, John.

    Some people embody Whatever It Is in (a) deity/ies with theology and doctrine, some regard it as numinous, and some embrace the line between atheism and agnosticism that locates “spiritual” in the brain chemistry with a complex evolutionary purpose. Whatever your choice, it remains an important element of awareness that we cannot know everything.

    You seem to have experienced at an early age what Teilhard de Chardin expressed as “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

    I believe willingness to accept What We Cannot Know, without needing to rope it, hogtie it, and put it in a pen of dogma and heirarchy is the prerequisite for that joy.

    In this essay, I see early roots that sprouted into much writerly insight.

  14. I’ll go with numinous. Here’s how I explained it once in a failed work of fiction:

    “I saw it, Espy, the whole mandala. I was the mandala,” I explained. “But more, I saw what Justine would call the face of the goddess, or a Christian would call the mind of God.”

    “What do you say it was?” she asked.

    “Existence. The mandala is my toy world, my limited understanding, my model. For one moment, beyond that toy, I saw it all, unfiltered. I couldn’t comprehend it. But I saw it.”

    “I saw it once,” Espy said in the smallest of her small voices, head held down. “Or, if you will, I have the memory of seeing it.” She looked up at me, and I nodded. Not Esperanza, but a predecessor. “I was walking at night, in a city. For one moment, from horizon to horizon, from zenith to nadir, from the subatomic to the relativistic, everything fit. It all made sense. I could never hold that knowledge, just the memory of knowing it.”

    “Exactly. The metaphors strip away and you glimpse the simplicity among the complex and know them all,” I said. She nodded.

    Brian was puzzled. “That sounds like bullshit, but…”

    “Oh, honey, it can easily be made from trancendence into bullshit,” I told him. “It’s a glorious insight that some people have made into all kinds of grotesque things.”

  15. I have sung some of Felix Mendelssohn’s choral music and listened to all of it. It’s gorgeous -okay, maybe not Elijah – and balm for the voice. It sits very well and I loved singing it.

  16. I totally understand what you are saying, except I experience it in a very different setting. I’m an EMT, and when I’m at a true emergency, working with others to save a life, and we’re all working together and anticipating needs and making sure all tasks are completed no matter how minor, it feels like that. Don’t see it very often (because I don’t see that many true emergencies), but when I do, it’s an amazing thing.

  17. I envy you. I applied to 3 schools. I wrote 3 essays, long hand, in pen, on paper applications. Months later, after all 3 schools accepted me, I wondered. What the hell did I say that impressed them?! I still kick myself for not keeping a copy of my applications!

  18. I used to confound/offend the door-to-door religion peddlers by telling them that when it came to separating the sheep from the goats I’d rather be a goat.
    Although frankly I’m a bit leery of any god who regards us as food animals.

  19. Ah, choral music. As River said above- the more complicated classical pieces can be a lot more fun to sing, especially the tenth time you have done them. (Thinking the Brahms or Mozart Requiem(s), here) (didn’t want to write Requia.) (rather – i DID want to write Requia, but decided against it, except in this afternote and the one immediately preceding it.)

  20. Good thing I didn’t have to do anything like that to get into college. At that time, I would written about a rock album: Rick Wakeman’s Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It truly did change my life, leading me into medieval English Lit, history, Tolkien, Plato, etc.

  21. I work at my alma mater and I did find my college essay on microfilm there. It was pretty good, actually, though not remotely like this one! It was about doing competitions.

  22. @Seannibal: I apologize for this: you have activated every grumpy classics-pedant bone in my body.

    That said:

    It’s good you didn’t write “Requia”, as that isn’t actually a word. I mean, you know the English plural: it’s the one you used. If you want the Latin plural, look it up instead of inventing some wild-ass guess. The singular of “Requia” would be “Requium”, which — again — doesn’t exist.

    (I really want to just leave you to go find the plural form yourself, but okay, fine: “Requietes”.)

  23. Thanks for including my favorite scene in Chariots of Fire: where Eric explains that running is what he was born to do. It resonates even more deeply when one remembers what a gifted actor Ian Charleson was, and how he kept working until illness stopped him for good.

  24. When I was 16 or 17 I failed French.

    As for essays, in Canada, where the adjective “good” is not put on front of high schools or universities (they are standardized) you only have to write an essay once you are admitted, as a test of threshold English competence. And you have to pay for taking it. (I bypassed that requirement by taking my adult newspaper clippings down to the registrar)

    Something recently struck me about the dates that Canadians started this test: The late 1970’s, which was a few years after you could get in without having a high school foreign language.

    The requirement for French was dropped in the mid-seventies and all the golden kids on the academic stream who thought they were so smart (not really) dropped the class like a hot potato once they no longer needed it.

    I failed French, but by taking it again, just after it was no longer needed, I was among only a few students, ones who were inner motivated, wanted to be there, so I had a good time among them, although I was at the bottom of the class, and I managed to pass the second time around.

    Unlike John, I was not smart/functional enough for a scholarship. For university you needed algebra. I bypassed that requirement during my first year by taking “Math II” which they warned me no other campus would recognize, but it sufficed to get me in. This time a fellow writer and I were both at the bottom of the class.

    She pointed out that only we two writers needed to take our work home because we were the only ones unable to finish it in class.

    And yes, I got my degree, without failing any more classes…

    After reading David Goldfarb, above: I wish I had taken my “Greek and Latin vocabulary class” before taking anatomy. As as writer, I loved that class. Now I know why the “dorm”ouse in Alice in Wonderland was so sleepy.

  25. It’s a pleasure to see justified pride in a shared endeavor done well. Also interesting to me are people’s experiences of the Infinite/the Almighty/the Great Unknowable, recounted in terms other than those of an established church.

    And for some reason this reminds me that I’d like to hunt down and read The God Engines – one of the few of your published works that I’ve not yet read.

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