Students choosing superstorm Sandy experiences as topic for college application essay

The traumatic experience of surviving superstorm Sandy has provided some high-school seniors inspiration for their college-application essays, a task that in the best of times is already stressful.

Luis Hernandez, 17 years old, had been polishing an essay about a trip to South Africa in response to a question about the importance of community. But after fleeing Red Hook to escape Sandy, he scrapped it and wrote about the unexpected charity he received from his teachers.

"When I started thinking more deeply about it, I was like, I have to write about Sandy," he said. "This moment was closer to home for me, and I wanted to show who I was to the college."

The Oct. 29 storm disrupted seniors who faced early college-application deadlines in November, though many institutions relaxed deadlines or said they would accept late applications from students who provided storm-related explanations.

The main essay, or personal statement, is widely seen as the most challenging part of college applications. It forces 17- and 18-year-olds to write with precision and insight about themselves. "It's introspective, and that's really hard for a lot of kids to do," said Lisa Bleich, a college-admissions counselor. "Sometimes a student will discover or reinterpret something about themselves."

That happened to Maura Hennessey, 17, who wrote a perfectly acceptable essay about evacuating her Breezy Point home with her mom and dog. But an English teacher at her New York City high school, Scholars Academy, asked her to redo it because it sounded too much like a typical survivor story.

Ms. Hennessey thought about the embarrassment she felt when accepting donations, even though she'd donated to food drives herself, and she couldn't figure out why.

In her next draft, she wrote: "I never really thought about the people who received the food. I figured they were poor, or homeless, with all the stereotypes associated with it. I didn't think that maybe they were like me, but they had just fallen on hard times.…Standing on the other side of the line is a truly humbling experience."

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