A College Essay Formula That Never FailsSeptember 18, 2017, 02:02 PM
Writing the college essay can be a daunting task for any high school student. Trying to encapsulate your personality, ambitions and achievements in such a small space (500-650 words typically) can seem impossibly frustrating. So what’s the trick? For starters, knowing how to construct a good story really helps.
Here are some guidelines to follow to crafting a winning personal statement:
Understand the Purpose of the College Essay
Many students (and parents) incorrectly believe the purpose of the essay is to “show off” or brag about your achievements. Not the case! Your high school curriculum, GPA, and SAT® or ACT scores, and list of extracurricular activities provides venue for highlighting any outstanding achievements. Most applications also provide additional space for listing important honors and awards.
Remember, the purpose of the college essay to give admissions a sense of your character, values, maturity and readiness for college (and not a resume of accomplishments).
Construct a Narrative To Keep Readers Interested
In his amazing book, Conquering the College Essay in 10 Steps, college essay consultant Alan Gelb writes: “When you’re narrating, you ‘re telling a story. The story is a sequence of events. It may be a long story—The Odyssey, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Rings—or it could be as short as a joke.”
Gelb advises students to think of the college essay as a short-short story, using some of the same techniques that good writers use to construct an interesting plot. Here are some of the techniques that good fiction writers use to construct interesting plots and keep the reader engaged.
Pay Attention to the Opening Sentences
A good opening sentence immediately places the reader at the center of the plot at the most dramatic moment of the story, which may not be situated chronologically. Here are two examples of really good opening sentences:
All my dedication and effort came down to these next 75 minutes. It was my last opportunity to pass the American Math Competition that year.
I waited for the inevitable. Finally, I heard my name called, and I slowly stood up. My teacher handed me the note, and it read: “Come immediately to the front office.”
Both of these examples open the essay at the most dramatic point in the story, enticing the audience to keep reading to find out what happened.
Find the “Extraordinary” in the “Ordinary”
A good story highlights discovers the “extraordinary” in our everyday lives. Taking a test or being sent to the principal’s office are “ordinary” events that happen everyday at countless high schools. A good essay starts there and builds upon these scenarios to create drama and suspense.
When I first heard about the AMC exam in my freshman year, it went in one ear and out the other. The exam seemed intimidating and far away. Soon, after regularly attending math club, I realized that the intellectual challenge posed by the AMC was different than the math skills required for other standardized tests, like the SAT® or ACT. Preparation for the AMC is a long process that involves learning the complexities of mathematics and developing powerful problem solving skills. Unlike typical math problems that consist of memorizing a formula and solving problems by plugging numbers into formulas, problems on the AMC required me to be creative.
This student does a great job of taking something “ordinary” (taking a math test) and discussing the “extraordinary” (learning the complexities of higher level mathematics). The essay also gives a platform for the student to “brag” about his math abilities but in a modest and interesting way.
Tension and Conflict Are Good Things
College admissions officers are looking for students who are confident and capable of making good decisions under pressure. When colleges say that they are looking for leaders, they mean it! And good leadership means embracing conflict not avoiding it.
Most people were surprised by what I did. My peers told me that it was my fault for getting the teacher “fired”. With the exception of my parents, almost nobody approved of the action I took to report his inappropriate behavior. How could any rational person think that what the teacher did was okay? Teachers are supposed to be role models and have the student’s best interest in mind. That day I felt like I had no choice: I had to stand up for myself, my core beliefs, and the other students in the classroom.
This student shows his resilience to withstand peer pressure and stand up to adults who are treating students disrespectfully. Though his actions are personally meaningful, they also safeguard the community, capturing the essence of true leadership.
End Strongly, Answering the Why?
Even if you write a strong narrative, students must include, typically at the end, an explicit statement that answers: “Why did you tell us this story?” The last part, the “Why?” should highlight the characteristics that make you a strong candidate. Often, this section highlights positive moral and ethical traits, resilience and maturity, or creative thinking.
What I learned from this experience is that when I am involved in a situation that conflicts with my core values, I act upon it. Every person, however, has a need to be treated respectfully by others. Most people at their core believe this to be true, yet in our society, every day, even at the highest realms of leadership, people are routinely disrespecting each other. This behavior divides people, and it is not one I choose to model. Instead, I stood up for my values and came out the other side a more confident and compassionate individual.
Many student essays lack this final statement, leaving it up to the admission officer to read between the lines when it comes to the “Why?” This is a big mistake. Often what a student thinks is obvious may not be something the admission officer catches (and when you are tasked with reading hundreds of essays, who can blame them?).
Make Sure the Topic Fits the Application
Don’t forget, the narrative of the essay should always be in sync with the application as a whole, so topic selection matters. Both examples in this article were written by recently graduated high school seniors, one who attends MIT (the math essay, of course) and the other attends USC as a business major (and leadership plays a big role).
All of us are unique and special with different stories and experiences to share, so don’t worry about “impressing” anyone. Constructing a good narrative that highlights your personal strengths and unique spin on the world is impressive enough.
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