Calvin & Hobbes, Gary Clark Jr., and the Authentic Narrative of Your College Essay

It's that time of year... Sam Bigelow, Associate Director of College Counselor at Middlesex School, joins us today to talk college essays.

This is a piece about some things that are very important to me—music, Calvin and Hobbes and your college essays.

Taking my dog for a post-lunch, afternoon walk through Estabrook Woods behind the Middlesex School campus recently, I was listening to the new Gary Clark Jr. live album and appreciating the wonderful authenticity of this young Texas blues hero’s singing and guitar playing. He’s taken on the mantle of today's “it” blues guy, and I think I know why. When he sings, you believe every word and note he let’s leave his body. When he rips into a guitar solo midway through a song, there’s intensity, there’s insistence, and there’s soul. He is, as we like to say, “the real deal.” There are plenty of guitarists out there that can play faster, plenty of singers that have more impressive vocal range, but if you can’t sing or play with real feeling like he does, you likely won’t resonate with an audience in the same way. I always tried with my own music to dial back the fireworks and play piano and sing more simply and more authentically in my own voice. I am certainly not saying I was successful in that venture, but I always tried to do that.

My favorite cartoon strip growing up was Calvin & Hobbes. While Bill Watterson published the last comic for Calvin, the devilishly sweet little boy, and Hobbes, his stuffed pet tiger/best friend, on December 31st, 1995, I hope future generations will get to know this duo. Running around in the woods together on a wintery snow day, going on adventures, throwing water balloons at fabricated enemies, making snowmen, and talking about life, they were soul mates. My brother, sister, and I loved Calvin and Hobbes growing up, would stay up late reading the books of their comics, and just felt very connected to the boy and his buddy, Hobbes. Because Calvin and Hobbes were always honest with each other. They spoke directly to one another and posed some of life’s great questions to one another, but the meaning that Bill Watterson was trying to get across was implied in the characters’ childish conversations, not explicitly explained.

Similar to a juicy Gary Clark Jr. guitar solo, Calvin and Hobbes' relationship was expressed beautifully and simply. In their last cartoon strip, Calvin and Hobbes are flying through the air on their old-fashioned wooden toboggan, just hurling themselves off a huge snowy hill into the unknown, and looking ahead to whatever is in front of them. Calvin says to his buddy Hobbes, “Let's go exploring!” and they are off. There is excitement in the air, as well as mystery. As the reader, you don’t know what their next adventure is, but you know there will be one. You don’t know what will happen to Calvin when he grows up, but neither does he and he doesn’t claim to know.

So what does this have to do with an authentic narrative in your college essays? Well, presenting yourself in a college application can feel sterile and impersonal. How is someone whom you’ve likely never met going to get to know you by reading a bunch of stuff about you in a folder or online? Well, when Gary Clark Jr. plays some big festival where no one has heard him before, he delivers an authentic performance and the audience knows all they need to know about him.

When I recently read my fifty seniors’ college essays (and numerous supplemental essays), the essays that stayed with me were not impressive and memorable because of vocabulary or experiential fireworks nor did any of them attest to solving the world’s major problems. In fact, my favorite ones told simple, but real stories about a donut or a nature drawing or a father or an alarm clock. Each student let their story imply their meaning instead of explicitly writing it. Like a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, they stripped away any excess fluff and were honest and concise. Similar to a beautiful, raging guitar solo that is based on a simple blues scale and three chords, students should tell a story. Don’t make it as complex as possible; tell your story directly, truthfully, and clearly. Be honest. If you are undecided about what you want to study, proactively embrace your uncertainty like Calvin, and talk about your excitement for what lies ahead. I am not implying that this is in any way easy, but it certainly is the key to crafting an authentic narrative. Colleges, at the end of the day, just want to hear your story.

This was easy for me to write because I know how I feel about music and Calvin and Hobbes and essays. For you, whether you are in an interview, writing an essay, or just thinking about the next phase, just know that if you keep it simple, be yourself, talk and write about the things you know and love, and embrace the unknown, you cannot fail. Let’s go exploring!


Sam is Associate Director of College Counseling at Middlesex School  in Concord, Massachusetts. Sam started his career in education as an admissions representative in the Harvard College admissions office and then joined Boston University’s Admissions Office for six years, becoming a senior assistant director. Over the next four years, Sam was a senior associate director in the college counseling office at Choate Rosemary Hall, where he has also co-taught a course in music production, coached squash, and managed a dorm.  Sam holds a B.A. in English from Connecticut College and studied piano and voice at the Berklee College of Music. In addition to his work in the college office, Sam is the assistant varsity golf coach and a dorm parent. He moonlights as a professional pianist, singer, and songwriter. 

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