College essays are a bit counterintuitive.
In other parts of the application, admissions officers want to see that a student has the goods: stellar test scores and grades, passionate interests outside the classroom, leadership potential, and focus. Applicants should present their best, most polished selves, as they would at a formal interview. Blue suit, firm handshake, direct gaze.
But if students take the same formal approach to their application essays, they have badly misjudged the occasion.
In the most successful college essays, students appear in pajamas, in jeans with holes in the knees, in costumes or uniforms. These essays tend to be stories, but they are never the obvious stories. If another student could write something similar, I tell students to think up a new idea. Most of my work is pushing students past the obvious, to some obscure corner of their experience that is rich with meaning and feeling.
Again and again I ask them, “What did it look like? What did it feel like? What did it taste like, sound like, smell like?” These sensory details make the essay come alive.
But explaining what happened, however vividly, isn’t enough. Students also need to reflect on what it meant to them. They must demonstrate some internal transformation. To this end, I urge students to explore all aspects of their topic, especially the conflicts and contradictions at the heart of all great stories.
Believe it or not, most students end up enjoying the process they had dreaded for so long. Not only will they have learned about themselves, but they will have learned how to take the seed of an idea and develop it into a finished product, an essential skill for writing in college and beyond.
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”
– Joan Didion