Special note: I’m not a college admissions counselor. I’m not even part of an admissions committee (although I have been part of various admissions committees before). What I am, however, is a college writing teacher who has read my share of personal statements and essays for college, graduate and professional schools, and job applications.
And I’ll tell you this: They all sound exactly the same to me.
Even the essays that boast of amazing international travel experience in orphanages or refugee camps have unfortunately become cliché. I read all about community service, leadership, and hardship. All of these experiences are real and valuable, but every other person applying has a similar story.
There’s a solution!
I tell students to make it memorable by replacing every overused, generic expression with a vivid and sensory experience for the reader. I tell students to make the narrative so uniquely them that it couldn’t possibly be interchanged for any other person.
Make it memorable!
Make it so memorable that even after reading two thousand essays, a person will say, “Remember that one about. . .”
I still remember an essay I read ten years ago about a woman watching a bullfight. I remember the essay I read five years ago about a person’s job driving vintage cars in an annual parade. Something about the setting–the colors, the smells, and the sounds–stuck with me all these years.
So as I consult with students at this time of year (application season!), I tell them to make it memorable. It doesn’t have to be bullfights and parades, either. Take the most boring thing–maybe eating breakfast or cleaning a toilet–and show us something we need to know.
Besides, living with flair means we don’t live in cliches. We make everything unique and memorable (even cleaning toilets).
Have you read a great admissions essay this year?
I once got a thank you email from an admissions officer after he read my essay. I did write it about an experience in a third world country . . . and how frustrated I was to see that consumerism and the want for more had taken hold in my host family. I wrote about my anticipation of going on the trip and my excitement to be away from US culture, only to find that my family wanted to talk about the US, know about the US, and own lots of stuff. I was in a village of a thousand people in rural Honduras, and we watched Xena the warrior princess on a TV powered by the truck battery. It was pretty poignant, if I may beat my own drum.
The only other really great essay I've heard of was an example one in a speech I was transcribing (I used to do that for spare $). The guy was talking about writing essays and how he helped a student punch up his essay about getting fired from McDonalds. I wish I could remember more details. The key is to not make it a pat essay that you think you want someone else to hear. The idea for making it great is to write something real and true for yourself.
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