During their peak season, college admissions officers spend upwards of twelve hours a day poring through mountains of applications. Each application contains plenty of objective data: high school transcripts, SAT scores, lists of extracurricular activities. But subjective parts of the application can be pivotal in determining whether the officer decides to check the “Admit” box next to your name. Your admissions essay, sometimes called a “personal statement,” will likely be the most important piece of self-marketing you’ve written up to this point in your life.
To compose a winning college essay, begin with careful analysis of your audience and your purpose. Consider what it’s like for admissions officers to read stacks of essays, hour after hour, day after day, month after month. Work like that can be tedious. Many of the essays are dull, vague, full of hackneyed observations or grating self-promotion. In that context, admissions officers glow with gratitude when they come across essays that are entertaining, thought-provoking, or otherwise compelling. Like most people, they relish those moments of “flow” that make them forget they’re actually working. That’s the sort of experience you want to give your audience.
It’s not enough, however, merely to give the admissions officer a “good read.” An effective essay also reveals important elements of who you are.
A Tricky Balancing Act
While a college application essay is certainly a piece of self-marketing, it shouldn’t appear that way on the surface. Sure, you want to convey the impression that you’re smart, capable, creative, and engaged in your community. But remember that the objective data in your application will showcase your grades, scores, awards, and other qualifications. The essay shouldn’t repeat what your audience can glean from the rest of your application package—that sort of redundancy will make readers think you’re just wasting their time. You should also avoid anything that sounds like bragging. You’ll need to pull off the tricky balancing act of portraying yourself as talented and likable while not appearing to promote yourself.
What Do They Want from Your Essay?
They want to get to know you on a personal level. They want a sense of your spirit, your attitudes toward life, education and other people. They want a piece of writing that will clue them in to how you’ll act as a member of their community, how you’ll add value to their school. They want to be charmed, intrigued, entertained and impressed. They want to like you. Remember what Holden Caulfield says about a book that really knocks him out? “When you’re all done reading it,” he gushes, “you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” The same principle applies to your admissions essay–give people a nice experience and they’ll want to know you better; they’ll want you as part of their community.
So how are you supposed to satisfy these desires and accomplish such apparently contradictory goals in your essay? There’s one genre of writing that conveys the information admissions officers need while also providing the pleasurable reading experience that will make them grateful to you.
Give ‘Em a Story
Telling a good story is one of the most reliable ways to get people to like you, while also revealing important facets of your character. And an admissions officer who likes you is much more likely to want you on her campus.
Dr. Matt Joseph, owner of MJ Test Prep, has been coaching students in the application process for more than twenty years. He always begins his essay sessions with sage advice on the foremost goals. “The college essay is essentially about character,” Joseph says. “But the best essays reveal character indirectly, by using narrative to show how the writer sees the world.” Joseph warns his students away from the common mistake of “trying to explain themselves by discussing their thoughts or emotions.” The result of such explanation is usually a vague, unoriginal piece of writing that fails to interest or inform the reader the way a good college essay should.
This excerpt is a case in point:
I consider myself a very compassionate person. I’m interested in other people and I want to help them, especially when they’re having some kind of trouble. I participate in fundraisers for charities, and have volunteered at a homeless shelter. Whenever a friend or family member is struggling, I do what I can to support them. The source of my desire to help others is internal. When somebody else is sad, it affects me emotionally; I feel their sadness and this spurs me to offer assistance. The most recent friend I helped told me afterward that it really made a difference to her. This example shows an important aspect of my personality.
See the problem? The admissions officer has probably read a thousand essays that sound like that. While the description might be accurate, it’s not specific, original or interesting, and it reveals the writer’s personality only superficially because it doesn’t clearly describe actual experiences. The one experiential example the writer uses is mentioned in a vague, one-size-fits-all way that conveys almost nothing about her friend or the way she helped him. There’s nothing to draw the reader in.
You want to grab and sustain your reader’s interest, right? So don’t engage in abstract musings about your personality. Tell a story instead. When you write a narrative, you describe a specific chain of events, using sensory details to create a vivid ride for your reader. Renowned crime novelist Elmore Leonard advises writers to “skip the boring parts” when they’re composing a story. This means finding the drama in the raw material of your life, zeroing in on that good stuff, and cutting out the rest. By keeping your focus on people and a clear chain of events, you’ll be showing your audience significant experiential action, rather than merely telling them that you’ve had certain kinds of experiences.
In the “I’m-a-compassionate-person” example above, the writer mentions that she has volunteered at a homeless shelter. What if she explored the potential story material in her volunteer experiences? She might write an essay that begins this way:
My mother and I were serving dinner to the residents of St. Columba’s Shelter when he appeared in front of me, holding out his plate. He was around sixty, with salt-and-pepper hair and a scruffy mustache. I was a little startled because I’d never met someone with an eye patch before. His was black and together with his craggy features, reminded me of pirates. But what startled me even more was what he said as I dished the potato casserole onto his plate. Through the steam rising from the hot food, he looked at me with his one good eye, smiled sadly and said, “You remind me of my daughter.”
Now the writer is offering a story that hooks the audience by showing surprising and moving interactions. She doesn’t have to use self-regarding statements like “I’m a compassionate person” because now she’s showing her compassionate behavior instead, while also transporting the reader with descriptions of specific people and poignant events.
Brainstorming: Where’s Your Story Hiding?
Okay, so maybe you’re a bit stumped when it comes to finding the right autobiographical material for your essay. Where do you begin? You want to sift your memory for series of events that will involve the audience so much that they’ll forget that what they’re doing is actual work, and just be swept away, even enchanted, by your story. One of the main draws of compelling stories is emotional appeal, or pathos. You want to make your audience feel for you or for other people you’re writing about. You want them to care about what happens to these people. So there should something relatively important at stake in what you’re describing—striving for a goal, weathering adversity, dealing with conflict.
It also helps to find material that’s odd, quirky or otherwise surprising. Maybe you decided to major in biology after becoming lost in a swamp and seeing for the first time the beguiling strangeness of forms of life most people avoid or ignore. Such material could draw the reader in with the drama of your initial panic and fear, and move on to show your intellectual curiosity as you became aware of environmental riches you’d never before appreciated.