We are nearing the deadlines for personal essays. Most are part of a college application, but the same rules of effective essays hold when applying for a scholarship or a job opening.
I occasionally get to review such essays and provide feedback. Here’s what I’ve learned about essays and the role of a reviewer, in 550 words or less.
While the fill-in-the-blank portions cover the quantitative, such as grades and activities, the essay covers the qualitative, the person behind the stats. Listen to university admissions people talk about essays and you’ll hear a common wish: “I want to get to know the real live human being.”
The nonessay part is what you’ve done with your life so far. The essay is why, and how you’d like to carry that forward into your education and career. The essay takes the pencil sketch of factoids and adds rich colors to create a complete painting.
Think of the essay in terms of a face-to-face meeting and interview. The basics, like clear structure, punctuation and spelling, are the clothes you wear to the interview. Messing up the basics is like showing up in ripped jeans and a dirty T-shirt. Doing these right won’t open the door, but botching them might slam it shut. A reviewer can be invaluable for critiquing your essay’s “attire.”
Beyond these basics, the essay must say something about the applicant that doesn’t come through in any other materials.
That’s where many essays fall short. Many applicants are imprisoned by what they feel a personal essay should be, as if every “appropriate” essay follows some standard for structure, tone and language. When you consider the ultimate goal of the essay – to help the applicant stand out among the multitudes – it makes no sense to try to fit some mold.
Fred Hargadon, former dean of Admission at Princeton, said, “… be sure your essay reflects you, and not some idealized version of yourself that you (imagine) an admissions office (looks for)… Write for anyone other than that admissions person…”
Consider what it is about you that makes you one-of-a-kind. You are one-of-a-kind, by the way. What floats your boat or gets your blood boiling? Where’s your passion? For many young people still discovering themselves, these are tough questions.
Consider connections from the essay back to other parts of your application. The worst essays paint a picture that has no such connections. Claiming outrage at social injustice won’t hold water if you’ve never acted on that outrage in your past.
The best essays take the facts and figures of the fill-in-the-blank portion and connect them with meaning and motivation. Here’s where your reviewer can become a mentor. Above all, he or she should know you well, which is why the notion of a for-hire surrogate essayist is absurd; they can’t possibly know you.
Sit down with your mentor and talk about your history, passions and ambitions. Don’t talk about essays; talk about you. With enough time and thoughtful consideration, you’ll discover the theme(s) that defines you.
I find this a helpful rule of thumb: Spend at least as many hours thinking about what to write as you spend writing. Only when your theme is crystal clear should you worry about conveying it in 550 words or less.