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Monday, August 22, 2016
The Art of Storytelling in the Admission Essay
Ushering students through the sludgy process of writing is difficult at the best of times. Enjoyable narratives aren't always objectively good. Like art, some writing speaks to us, and some does not. When used well, tight grammar and punctuation can pull a narrative into a tidy bundle. But technical accuracy doesn't give writing a soul, and this is particularly relevant to autobiographies.
When it comes to writing, most high school students have limited tools. This isn't to say there aren't many gifted 17-year-old writers out there, but, as with any art, precision and imagination ripen with time. Which is why giving college admissions essay advice can be so difficult.
Young students are often constrained stylistically by their high school training. Standard English classes conform to rote rules of composition, which may leave students feeling uncomfortable being creative when writing personal statements.
I once had a professor who encouraged us to read our work aloud. Her theory was that putting your words out in the air subjected them to a different type of scrutiny. Cadences, pauses, and loose ends that may not have been apparent in written form tend to show themselves when spoken.
In reviewing college admissions essays, I see many of the same pitfalls. Long lists of activities. Written excuses for weaknesses in their academic records. Sob stories. And, sadly, essays that are simply uninteresting. All of these fragilities would become readily apparent if read out loud.
The essay should be a good story. It should not be a grab-bag of student accomplishments. There is room for that list elsewhere on the application. Write something you'd like to read.
Like every good author, students should work diligently to unburden themselves of the need to impress their reader. Counterintuitive in the application process? Sure. But try to remember the role of the admission essay: it is meant to soften out the hard edges of scores and grades. It is meant to be a window with a different view.
What better way to make it so than by telling a story well?
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