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Monday, October 14, 2013
Getting to the Specifics
Over the past decade or so, I've read a lot of admissions essays. Since they're required to conform to certain guidelines, they tend to have many of the same strengths and weaknesses. The critique I find myself leveling more than any other? It sort of has to do with specifics. Each time I give this sort of feedback, I struggle with a better way to articulate it. The problem? "Be more specific" isn't terribly specific advice.
The thing is, many young high school writers get mired in generalizations. "Being a camp counselor taught me about life". "Becoming an Eagle Scout taught me about perseverance". "Art allows me to be myself". These statements aren't wrong-they just aren't interesting. More importantly, they aren't illustrative.
If these are the peaks in the topography of an admissions essay, they're doomed to a quick skim. Sometimes I can practically feel the reader slipping it into the "maybe/next time" pile.
Usually, I give examples to guide students. Instead of "My grandmother taught me everything about my Irish ancestry", try, "I can still smell my grandmother's fresh-baked soda bread. She'd never let us take a bite without a steaming mug of hot tea".
Recently, however, I stumbled across an expression I really like. "Transforming experiences into moments". (Credit to Carol Balash of the "Story to College" blog). Moments resonate with a reader. It gives your reader something visually tangible. They won't get that from, "Water polo taught me about teamwork", but they might remember the first time a student "wrung the water from my swimsuit after my first win". Water polo is the experience. The first win is the moment.
A good essay should be about an experience, but it should be comprised of a series of moments. That's what makes it personal. That's what makes it interesting. Is that specific enough?
Labels: Getting to the Specifics
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