Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Strategies That Worked

"Tell me something that you mean, not just what comes to mind."-- Lyle Lovett

Unsuccessful college essays, in my view, are unsuccessful largely because the writer doesn't "mean" what he or she says. This sad state of affairs results from choosing a topic ("what comes to mind") for the wrong reasons, usually from a misguided attempt to write what the writer falsely thinks the admission officer will consider an "important" topic. Hence the astounding number of badly written essays on Gandhi, Jesus, MLK, my grandmother, and why I think diversity is the most important thing I will experience in college.

Saying "something that you mean," on the other hand, involves selecting from those events and experiences that have meant the most to you, that have been most memorable, that represent the people and memories and projects and causes that you cherish most. Don't write about your summer vacation/community service trip to Spain unless that really is one of the most important events in your life.

 Although very different in subject matter, the sample essays from Connecticut College have at least four things in common, qualities that, for me at least, make them "work" as personal statements. ( I am referring to essays by James W, Sophia M, and Benjamin B which may be found here).

  1. Hook. Each writer grabs the reader's immediate attention by starting in the middle of the story. The lights went out. We rumbled up a goat path for three hours. The phone rang. Simple, vivid opening sentences—no gimmicks, no weird stuff—create interest. College admissions officers read hundreds or thousands of these statements. You have maybe three minutes of their time; don't waste any of it with a long, drawn out opening.
  2. Detail. Lots of specific concrete detail. The smell of the lady's french fries on the subway. Contents of drawers in great-grandmother's house. The movies John and Ben watched together, the games they played. Readers want to be able to see, hear, and smell what you're talking about. General language won't do that. Details will.
  3. Narrative. Each of these writers has a story to tell. It doesn't have to be a unique or life-altering story. It just has to be your story. Tell it truthfully, and someone else will want to read it.
  4. Reflection. Especially near the end of each of these pieces, the writers explain why this story is important, what the experience means to them, how it affected them, how it illustrates something about their personalities. James Walsh knew he had just become global. This was not merely an old house in the mountains, it was home distilled. If it weren't for my friendship with John, I wouldn't have gotten beyond my first impression of Matt to start a conversation with him. Make sure you are telling your story for a reason.