14 November 2013

In 500 Words or Less

In 500 words or less...

...describe your career goals, research interests, and moving personal history.  (Bonus points if we cry.)

In 500 words or less...

...explain how to solve world hunger.  (Make sure your idea is novel and realistic, please.)

In 500 words or less...

...capture the essence of motherhood.  (You know, get to the root of it.)

In 500 words or less...

...tell us what it's like to live in Congo.  (Everything.  Tell us everything.  We want to feel the rain on your dusty skin and hear the beat of drums in the distance.)

In 500 words or less...

Can you tell I'm applying to grad school?  

Every day this week, I've spent the hours between 8pm - 2am (because that's when a working parent is most productive, right?) obsessing over the state of my life in 500 words or less.  It's agonizing and those final cuts and edits almost did me in.  Johan (and Sarah) told me more than once that I was clearly insane.  It's just so intense to lay your hopes and dreams out to a bunch of strangers and ask them - pay them - to judge you.

If I try to work when my kids are awake, things like this happen.  (Yes, that's my cat eating a lollipop.)

I exaggerated above.  None of the schools asked me to wax eloquent on motherhood or begged to experience an absurd African rainstorm.  Thankfully, public health programs are largely sensible and to the point when it comes to essays.  However, I did just read this article about the ways undergraduate admissions are trying to sort through the essay doldrums, and I can't decide if I would have rather answered one of these questions:
  • “What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?” (Chicago)
  • “If you could choose to be raised by robots, dinosaurs or aliens, who would you pick?” (Brandeis)
  • “So where is Waldo, really?” (Chicago again)
  •  “Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.” (Chicago, writing crazy-ass essay questions to mess with high school seniors since 1980.)

Could I somehow describe my dedication to safe motherhood by way of super-huge mustard?  I'm thinking...

Image by Gtarmanperson via Wiki Commons.

While the bulk of my 500-word angst is over and submitted, I keep turning sentences over in my head: eliminating a , an, that, and which, adding hyphens, and correcting my misdirected love of the passive sentence.  It's my new mental game, not unlike those people who silently add big numbers for fun while on the subway or grocery store line. It makes me feel clever.  But there is also a feeling of danger; that once I start, I might not be able to stop.  The more I revise, the more I understand that the essay might never really be perfect!  Is this what editors feel like all the time?

People love and hate this process.  Check out these amazing essays about essays.  I should have known that the NYTimes would be all over this topic.  Hereherehereherehere, and here.  

Some schools try to frame the word limit as a part of the competition, saying, "It's part of the challenge for you to make us like you in as few words as possible." While I was initially among the throngs protesting the unfairness of this task, I'm now a convert.  500 words is genius.

The exercise of painfully fitting your dearest aspirations and most transformational moments into a little over one, single-spaced, page is kind of inspirational.  For example, I learned that while I thought that some of my best work was done after two glasses of wine, it was, in fact, definitely not true upon sober re-reading.  I learned that my husband really, really loves me as evidenced by a 3am editing session on a school night.  I also learned that I enjoy writing about moms and babies and the state of world health. Which is good, because if I end up with a dissertation on my hands someday, I had better really like my topic.  Talk about clarity. 

A great essay booze doth not inspire.

The 500-word, high-stakes, personal essay. You should try it sometime.  But, not for fun.  That might be weird.  


  1. You could submit your fantastic post, Jill. I didn't count all the words, but I did like you tremendously much well before I got to word 15.

  2. First, I thought your readership had gotten super demanding. Second, I started hoping we'd be getting the answers....

    1. Love! Both of these statements made me laugh out loud. Separately.

  3. Hiya! I love occasionally stopping in on your blog - I myself have lived all over Africa (Ethiopia, Mozambique, Niger - and Brazil too, which is of course not in Africa :) working on global maternal health issues. With UNICEF, UNFPA, NGOs, as consultant, now I'm finishing off my PhD at Oxford on maternal health in Ethiopia. Anyway! I just wanted to say bonne chance throughout this difficult application process. The world needs more people protecting mothers in intelligent ways that are actually relevant to the livelihoods of women on the ground. Love your blog and outlook, and know you'll do this in spades. Du courage!!

    1. Reading this, I got a little teary. It was the sweetest, kindest comment ever. I so appreciate that you took the time to write these words!


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