The College Admission Essay Process

Meet Ashlin Duncan: The College Admission Essay Process

by Brave Writer instructor, Jen Holman

Meet Ashlin Duncan. He is a high school student and just finished taking College Admission Essay (with moi). Ashlin had high hopes for his essay. He wanted to express his love of computer science, communicate all his accomplishments and technical expertise in that regard, while showing that his interests are varied. He also wanted to showcase his ability to work with various “subspecialities” of computer science and/or engineering. His initial assignments took the form of lists – lists of programs he knew how to use, lists of projects he’d worked, lists of consoles, accomplishments, jobs he’d had.

His first drafts told the long story of his accomplishments and love of tech. I kept pressing for narrowing, and he kept telling me that coding just didn’t really allow for sensory detail. He made a good point that computer science, the building of that knowledge and expertise, is a long and step-by-step journey, not something marked by single formative events. However, we kept going. Digging some more.

In Week 3 we hit upon an experience that he mentioned that made his writing come to life. We pounced! His next two drafts were magical. Today he handed in the final copy. I’d love to share it with you. It does a great job showing that things like coding, sitting at a desk and thinking over problems can all be described with vivid detail and creative language.

Notice how he manages to incorporate so many of his skills, the different computer languages he is fluent in, without saying “I can do this, I can do that…” Plus his absolute LOVE of computer science comes through, and the fact that he keeps a notebook next to his bed to capture late night inspiration! It’s a perfect showcase of personality and skill set.


Ashlin’s essay:

I drum my fingers against my mechanical keyboard. It happily clicks away, typing nothing onto the empty desktop of my office computer.

My eyes wander over to my second monitor. An instant message program glints back at me, displaying my last text. “Open for tasks!” it reads, cheerily indicating my crushing inactivity.

I check Kinetic’s list of known intranet bugs. Still empty. I fixed the last one yesterday.

I check my email for the tenth time today. One unread – spam. I delete it.

My phone rings, jolting me out of my stupor. I answer before the first chime is over.

At last – it’s Jay. He always manages to pull up a project from nowhere. I jump up, my chair rolling to a halt behind me, and tap down the steps to his office.

Jay has several task ideas – another bug fix, a client site update, a new intranet feature. I’ll complete them all, eventually. But one idea stands out from the others: create a web-app wrapper for GASP’s air quality widget.

GASP is a local organization dedicated to improving air quality. The widget is a clever little application, although simple. It retrieves Birmingham’s air quality data from a National Weather Service API, and displays it on the GASP website.

Jay suggests that I build a basic interface to view the data on a phone. I can reuse the existing widget, but add modern features like swipe gestures, responsivity, and “add to home screen.”

I happily accept the task. But as I walk back to my desk, I begin to turn the project over in my mind. It seems a little… manufactured. The widget already exists on GASP’s homepage… Would anyone use a separate app? The scope is already limited to Birmingham…

Or is it?

I nearly trip over the stairs as an idea forms in my mind. The data comes from the National Weather Service, after all…

This has potential. I fall back into my office chair, roll over to my computer, and open a terminal.

A few keystrokes confirm my suspicion. The air quality API works nationally – not just in Birmingham! If I modify the widget to detect a location, this app might have much broader appeal.

There’s just one problem. The existing widget, written purely in PHP, is too rigid to modify so significantly. I need to rewrite the entire application from scratch.

Normally, this would disappoint me. But not today. Finally, I have an excuse to use my favorite bleeding-edge technologies – JavaScript frameworks, client-side routing, REST APIs – my comfort zone. I eagerly begin development.

Hours pass. I accidentally skip lunch. My eyes are straining, the growing, glowing pages of code burning themselves into my retinas. But I don’t care – I’m at peak efficiency. I’m in a luxury sportscar, speeding ahead of Kinetic’s usual legacy code.

At the end of the workday, I reluctantly peel myself away. But my work isn’t finished – on my home PC, I build small, reusable components, primed to integrate tomorrow morning. A database model. A vector GASP logo. A flashy loading icon.

My eyes feel heavy. Sadly, humans need rest, and I’m no exception. But as I drift off to sleep, my mind keeps working. Each morning, a new entry in my notebook greets me: a hastily, hazily scrawled solution, spawned by last night’s musings.

Finally, after two days of nonstop work, I tap down the steps once again, and present my first iteration to Jay. He loves it – to be fair, he loves everything. But he gives me the go-ahead to continue development.

My app is nowhere near complete, of course. It needs testing, refinement, and expansion; each step holds many exciting problems to solve. As I happily trot back to my desk, I can picture the final product in my mind – I just need to put my pen to paper, and create.

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