If you’ve done any research about how to get into the college of your dreams, you’ve probably found the following two tidbits of advice: first, be yourself, and second, tell a unique story.
Remember that time you were trekking through the jungle, your group got lost, and a pack of monkeys stole your food and compasses? But you, a wily 16-year old, led your group back to safety and civilization by sheer willpower, smarts, and derring-do. Yea, tell that story (if you’ve got one like it)!
For those of us who haven’t lived the adventures of Indiana Jones, how do you make your story stand out?
For starters, forget about competing with the wild stories of adventure you imagine other applicants are telling. Nothing hurts an essay quite like trying to present a fairly standard experience or accomplishment as the triumph of the century.
Example One: The Tempest in a Teapot
When I walked onto the stage, I could feel the vast audience’s eyes boring into me, judging my costume. I was keenly aware of the amateur stitching, the tear at the elbow, and the cheap fabric that was all Hawkins High School’s theatre budget would cover. I put all my energy into a fervent prayer that the seams I had stitched in the wee hours didn’t tear as I delivered my opening monologue…
There’s an interesting story buried in this melodrama. You could discuss a love of theatre, discovering a new talent in costume design, or the pleasure of putting together a production from start to finish, including your own costume. But we lose all the compelling, personal interest in this story because the author is focused on heightening the drama to make this story sound unbelievable, and that’s just what it is—unbelievable. The adcom won’t be fooled; the “vast” audience was your high school auditorium, their judgement probably looked more like a row of iPad cameras, and the fervent prayer? I mean, c’mon.
This mistake usually comes from anxiety that you don’t have the “right” kind of story to tell. But just because you don’t have an incredible experience to share, or you haven’t lived through some kind of Shakespearean tragedy, doesn’t mean you don’t have a unique story to tell. A seemingly humdrum subject, shaped into an insightful and personal essay that reveals who you are and what you are passionate about, will impress far more than a stunning experience told for the sake of the story.
The key to telling that story well, is, you guessed it, be yourself! More particularly, be open about who you are. Just as adcoms are sensitive to the kinds of exaggerations and melodrama we saw in the last example, they appreciate honesty and openness. You will earn credit with them for demonstrating straightforward honesty, and finding meaning and value within your experiences, rather than seeking to aggrandize them.
Example Two: The Honest Take
The curtain went up, and I stepped into the spotlight. A veteran of the stage since playing pirate no. 3 in my 5th grade production of Pirates of Penzance, I wasn’t nervous for my lines, or thrown by the packed high school auditorium. My one nagging worry was the seam I could feel stretching at my elbow—the seam I had stitched myself in the early hours of that very morning. While I was an old hat on stage, I was a new to costume design. I delivered my opening monologue, and the seam held. As I leapt backstage I felt a new thrill in the theatre, and pride in my hand-stitched work…
Honesty is effective, and a safe bet to tell your story well and come across as genuine. In the second example, the author is much more focused on their own experience, rather than the audience, the stage, or the costume, and that’s exactly what the adcom wants to hear about—you, your experience, your take.
There are cases where it will be even more effective to take it one step further, and “get real” as kids these days say (just kidding, we’re down with the lingo). To take it further means being downright vulnerable in your application. In the era of social media, where it’s normal to take 18 selfies before settling on one to Insta, vulnerability doesn’t come easy. We all post, tweet, and snap our best representations of ourselves—flawless, confident, and positively killin’ it. So to tear down those walls as you approach the most stressful test of your life thus far, the college application process, is no easy feat.
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Example Three: Vulnerable Done Well
I changed my outfit three times, self-conscious because I would be standing on stage in front of the whole school later that day. I was dreading it, but I wouldn’t take an out if someone offered it—this was my chance to atone for taking the annual prank too far. I sighed and headed out the door, rehearsing my apology in my head, and eagerly awaiting the flood of relief I knew was coming in the moments after the assembly…
The same principle of honesty applies when writing the vulnerable application. In example three, the applicant is rather boldly telling the adcom about a time they screwed up, but doing so in a straightforward way, and revealing how they felt as they dealt with the mistake. This can be very effective. Sharing a failure or a screw up is risky, you are definitely making yourself vulnerable to the adcom, but done well, this can demonstrate maturity, thoughtfulness, and growth—golden qualities on a college app!
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While this can be a very effective tool if well executed, applicants often make a mistake similar to what we saw in the first example: going overboard with the melodrama. Don’t mistake sappiness for vulnerability, and you better believe the adcom, after hundreds of essays, won’t be fooled by an overwrought, melodramatic attempt to be genuine. We’ll say it one more time for good measure: straightforward honesty, whether tinged with a vulnerable side or not, always comes first.
Example Four: Vulnerability Gone Too Far
I didn’t want to get out of bed that morning, knowing it would be the worst day of my life. I was dreading the speech I had to make to the whole school, the consequence of my epic screw-up. I took ages to get dressed, discovering something to dislike in my appearance in every outfit, and bemoaning my physical flaws. I eventually dragged myself out the door, full of self-loathing and misery…
In this example, we see the vulnerability factor, but it’s buried in a self-pitying melodrama that neither reveals much about the candidate’s unique personality, nor about this particular formative event. Vulnerability done well will give the adcom insight into who the applicant is as a person, and reveal a very human, relatable feeling or experience. That should be the focus of the vulnerable approach, not self-pity or sappiness.
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At the end of the day, you undoubtedly have a great story to tell—the painful part is finding it. But rather than reaching for the shock and awe factor, you should be reaching for the best way to present yourself authentically. Get out of your head, and tell a story about something meaningful to you, in an honest and personal way. If you feel the love as you’re writing it, the adcom will the feel the love reading it.