College Essay Challenge

Let’s make a deal: I agree to give you up to 650 words (not a character more!) to articulate who you are, what makes you tick, and what excites your curiosity,if you agree to forget everything you’ve learned about writing an essay.

Well, almost everything. When it comes to grammar, punctuation, spelling, and syntactical clarity, the standard rules still apply (that means no #hashtags or emojis). But the college admissions essay is not a thesis-driven academic paper.In fact, I encourage you to treat the statement less as a piece of five-paragraph academic writing and more as a work of creative nonfiction—a personal essay in which you can let your authentic voice, quirks, and personality take the reins.

To some of you, that may seem like a tall order; rarely in school are you allowed to write in the first person or use novelistic techniques like scene-setting, dialogue, and sensory details in your prose. So ease into it. If you’re apprehensive about writing aboutyourself, fear not. You’re in good company.

If you’re concerned that you don’t have anything interesting to write about, think again. Do you brush your teeth in the morning? Great. Write an essay about switching from Crest to Colgate. Have you ever tended a garden? Perfect. Write an essay about spending three weeks watching your first strawberry grow from a goosepimpled green bud to a blush berry, only to wake up one (fateful!) morning and find that a hungry deer chomped the plant to bits. Have you been to San Antonio?Write an essay about seeing your father cry for the first time during a B-quality Davy Crockett film at The Alamo Museum.

My point is: It doesn’t matter what you write about, per se.What matters is how you shape what you’ve chosen into a narrative that illuminates something about yourself. A topic is only as interesting as its form and delivery.

Here are some tips, suggestions, and a few words of caution to consider when drafting your admissions statement.

Start Early
Give yourself time to brainstorm, free associate, and play around with different essay ideas. Take advantage of the free time you have during the summer months or on weekends to make headway with the statement. Rushed writing feels, well, rushed, and loads additional stress onto an admissions process that is stressful enough as it is. By the same token, once you’ve completed a draft, give it some time to steep – perhaps a week or two – and then look at it again with fresh eyes.

Think Small (as in, Grain-of-SandSmall)
The first stanza of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence opens,

  • To see a World in a Grain of Sand
  • And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
  • Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
  • And Eternity in an hour.

I’ve found that the best essays are those whose authors “see a World in a Grain of Sand”—in other words, essays that take a small speck of personal experience and use it as a microcosm for some larger truth. One of the paradoxes of memoiristic writing is that the more specific and idiosyncratic the experience described—that is, the more tailored the experience is to you—the more universal it becomes. James Wood, one of our foremost contemporary literary critics, says that readers “navigate by the stars of details”—which is wonderful advice for all writers to bear in mind.

When you construct a narrative, you’re taking the reader on a journey through your galaxy; the details you include (from concrete physical sensations, to less tangible but no less real emotional descriptions) are the guideposts the reader follows from beginning to end. Do not feel obliged to tell your life’s story in 650 words; instead, choose one small story from your life, and tell it with heart.

Learn from Literary Aces
A quick Internet search engine query will link you to dozens upon dozens of “successful college essays.” While these can be useful for getting a sense of the myriad ways in which students before you have addressed the prompts, I think an even better idea is to read published personal essays. I’m talking Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” George Orwell’s “Shooting An Elephant,” John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Mister Lytle: An Essay.” While many such pieces exceed 650 words, they’re wonderful resources in that they show the tenets of great storytelling at work: sensory description, specificity of details, narrative arc, character stakes. Better yet, think about the short stories and essays – fiction and/or nonfiction – that captivate you, that steal your attention and keep you reading, breathless. How do these authors lasso your interest?What techniques of theirs can you apply to your own writing?

Extend an Invitation
By now you’re likely familiar with the ubiquitous “hook”—a whirlwind of an opening that will grab readers’ interest and make it impossible for them to peel their eyes from the page. But readers aren’t fish, and too oftenhooks come off as affected, over-stylized attempts to be cute or funny. A better way to conceptualize your essay’s opening might be as an invitation, by which I mean that you’re asking the reader to join you in bringing an engaging story to life. Voice and tone are key here. When I pick up an essay (or an article, story, or book, for that matter), I can usually tell by the first few sentences whether I’ll enjoy this author’s company on the page. Imagine you’re writing for a person about whom you care deeply, and for whom you want to create a surprising, fun, and satisfying 650-word experience.

Quit Thinking So Much About “Them,Whoever “They” Are!
Who are “They”—this mysterious capital-letter cadre of admissions counselors whose preferences and predictions students drive themselves crazy trying to assess? Many years ago, when I was applying to college, I pictured “Them” as a white-bearded, fancy-suited, merciless group of old men gathered around a hearth, smoking cigars and surrounded by mahogany bookshelves. Then in graduate school, I befriended some real admissions counselors (Ivy Leaguers, mind you) and was shocked to learn that they weren’t so different from me—relatively young, relatively hip, relatively full of mercy. Non-smokers. They didn’t read admissions packets in a richly appointed boardroom; they read them alone in closet-sized Manhattan apartments, between bites of Chinese take-out. They took Netflix breaks. They looked for kids with good grades, yes; superb test scores, yes; but most of all, they looked for kids with verve, spunk, passion—an energy that can’t be faked.

Later this week look for specific advice on the 2014-15 Common Essay Prompts.

Sincerely yours (and waiting with eager-to-read eyes at the ready),
Margrét Ann Thors