Friends, I have been editing what is, hands down, the worst essay I’ve ever written.
In fact, I am writing this now because I needed space to make a decision. There comes a time when you must grit your teeth and keep slogging through, take a deep breath and start over entirely . . . or shove the pages off the table, grab a cup of tea, and start a blog post about the writing process.
This is, on one level, a cautionary tale: bad writing is what happens when you try to salvage content from the form you filled out that one time.
It turns out, my people, that cobbling together responses from questions you didn’t care about answering in the first place will not lead to a compelling narrative about your life for a reason. And, though you are hopefully writing your own essays using a process that doesn’t involve recycling old forms, the take-home message here might still be helpful.
The unifying thread of an effective personal essay isn’t simply a coherent path from point A to point B.
Rather, a good story requires a heart, a soul, and a vision.
I find that there is a particular clarity of focus that comes from knowing why I am telling a story.
Ideally, that knowledge is present from the moment I start writing, and that awareness becomes purpose: it guides me as I choose how I will hold each piece, where I will shine a light, how I will catch your attention.
Reflecting on this has helped me to articulate some guidelines, which I shall now pass along to you (as, I’ll be honest, a tool to delay a return to editing the atrocity-in-Garamond that awaits me).
There are three things to include when talking about your life as an applicant-for-something-you-really-want: a compelling introduction (of yourself, by yourself), the answers to the questions being asked . . . and a great story.
I know, I know. They only told you about the second part. Here’s the thing, though: that second goal is the substance of your application, but it alone doesn’t get you there. In fact, substance alone is painful to read. (And did I mention boring? BORING. Repeat after me: Do not bore your admissions committee. Also do not annoy them–that’s fatal–but I’m pretty sure scholarship dollars have yet, in the history of this world, to be awarded to those who cure insomnia with the click of the keyboard.)
Thus, let’s back up, because the meat of the text isn’t where we need to start.
The first and most important task of an admissions essay:
1. Introduce yourself. Winningly. You must be, on paper, someone you’d truly like to know.
This is your chance to let whoever is reading “meet” you.
Depending on the structure of the application, there may be a clear space for this introduction (“Tell us about yourself,”) or you may have to frame it yourself. In the composition commonly labeled “personal essay” and lacking further instructions, the reality is somewhere in the middle–you have to work within the space you have, but there is a lot of freedom in what and how you will do it. The thing to remember is that what you say here and in your supporting documents (resume, cover letter, references) is the only thing your reviewer knows about you. You are a blank slate, and what you need to become, in that reader’s eyes, is a person–and a likeable, compelling one at that.
Introduce yourself well on paper, and you will likely have a second opportunity in person. Otherwise, this is it. Either way, the stakes are high, so let your “self” shine through (think of Katniss Everdeen doing a full spin for the television audience. You are showing a stylized version of yourself, to be sure, but show it in a way that feels three-dimensional.)
As you read through your essay, ask yourself: if these words are all someone has to go on, will my reader feel that she knows me, personally?
2. Deliver the goods
This has two parts. First, make sure you give the reader whatever they have explicitly asked for. (This may seem obvious. I can tell you, however, as someone who used to review scholarship applications for an undergraduate leadership program, and who has since sat on 2 hiring committees, that an astonishing number of applicants submit things that don’t address, or don’t clearly address, the question being asked. This is a particular danger where you’re repurposing an essay or response you already wrote for something else, so use caution.)
Second, do it clearly and neatly. Whether anyone mentions it to you or not, your writing: grammar, mechanics, punctuation, style and flow–is being evaluated from the moment a person’s eye lands on the first page of your application.
Without this form-and-content piece, you miss the boat entirely, and your application ends up in the circular file and not in the short stack. We all know this, but the magic doesn’t happen here. For that, you need to also hit goal three . . .
3. Tell them a story.
We all want to be entertained. Style alone will not earn you what you seek (reread step 2), but the truth is, it is damned important.
Reading a bunch of anything in succession is mind-numbing. Make reading YOUR essays easy on your reviewers by drawing them in. In an application process, you will achieve this by taking the hands of your readers to bring them along on your personal journey. (Can I tell you that “The Story of My Life” has been playing loudly in my mind as I type this?)
If you want that person to feel excited about taking that trip with you, you need to feel excited, too–so if you don’t, consider it an invitation to sit back, close your eyes, and think more. Walk, in your head, the road that you have traveled. What makes you smile? What makes you cringe? What makes your heart race? What themes do you see emerging at this point in your path?
Use those themes to guide your narrative, and tell the story in your head until you’re ready to tell it on paper. Find the power and passion behind your story, and use that to propel your writing–when you’re in *that* space, it’s easier.
Writing that can move others must start with the stirring of your own soul. For myself, it’s finding that place and staying within it that’s the tricky part–after that, the words simply come. So invest the time, and ask yourself: what story am I telling here, and what makes it powerful?
. . .
Helpful? I hope so . . . tis the season, after all. (And seminary applicants, be warned: you may find, upon receiving your acceptance letters, that it is The Season all year long. Happy writing.)
And now, off to put a certain essay out of its misery.
j– moonlighting as your friendly Grammar Witch