Polka Dot Rabbits and College Essays

During a recent Skype session with one of my students, I noticed he was clutching a tiny stuffed teddy bear. Most of the time, it was out of view, but since he talks with his hands, I occasionally got a glimpse of it.

He is one of my college-essay students, an athletic guy who enjoys rock climbing with his friends and volunteers as a math tutor. He’s not the first student I’ve encountered who needs the familiarity and reassurance of an old friend in a transitional time – or during an intense writing session.

Another student clutched knitting needles and a big pink ball of yarn while we discussed topics for her college essay. She was making a pink bunny, and said the activity helped to calm her down. Some of her time in COVID-19 lockdown was spent putting together her impressive art portfolio. The rest was spent making crafts, including a cute stuffed octopus named “Pickles.”

Months into the pandemic, these warm-and-fuzzy links to childhood seem even more important, as my students seek to ease the distress and anxiety that comes with applying to school, on top of the uncertainty about the future of education. Even before COVID-19, a recent study found that 25 percent of young women go off to college with transitional objects they have loved since they were small.

It isn’t the first time that stuffed animals have accompanied my students through the college-application process.

One of my former students, now a poised young woman with an Ivy League degree, used to start our Skype sessions by holding an oversized polka-dot rabbit. The rabbit was big enough for her to hide behind when she was feeling a bit stressed. I found the rabbit to be a barometer of her emotions; as she became more confident, the rabbit was relegated to a shelf. 

A stuffed animal became the subject of another student’s supplemental essay. She was asked to write a letter to her future roommate, and she said she would come to the dorm with lots of snacks to share and “the pink bunny my dad gave me for Valentine’s Day.”

With a polka-dot bunny or a teddy bear by their side, a 17-year-old can summon up the courage to tell their story in an essay or leave the comfort of home. As Winnie the Pooh might say to someone reluctant to leave the nest: “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” But I’m sure the befuddled bear would be happy to come along for moral support in these uncertain times.

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