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Emily’s Essay Breakthrough: Make the Personal Universal

October 29, 2013 :: Admissionado Team

I grew up in a very musical family. As in, I’d come home from school and walk quickly through the front sun room where my mom was giving some kid a voice lesson at the piano. Sweeney Todd would be blasting on the turntable in the living room. My dad’s French horn music bubbled out of his office where he practiced and gave lessons. My sister would be sitting on the couch strumming on her guitar.

Unlike the rest of my family, I didn’t play any instruments. I sang a bit in chorus and in high school theatre productions. But my love of music was more of a receptive thing than an active thing. I preferred to listen and watch than to perform.

Luckily, I knew exactly what I wanted to write my college essay about from the get-go: my obsession with Stephen Sondheim, the Broadway musical composer.

Love of his music was in my blood: my parents met in a Broadway touring production of Sweeney Todd. And boy did that bloodline penetrate my life. I watched the PBS taped versions of all his musicals I could find. I read his biographies and books about composition. Any time there was a Sondheim production on Broadway, my family would make the drive in from Long Island to Manhattan to see it. Sometimes I even went to shows multiple times, getting cheap tickets from the TKTS booth. I think I saw Assassins a total of four times. I wrote Sondheim a letter (an actual letter) to tell him how much I loved his music—and when he wrote back to me I almost had a heart attack. At night, while falling asleep, I would listen to a Sondheim CD on repeat, for days or weeks, until I had memorized the entire score. Then I would move on to another Sondheim CD. I went through most of my day with a Sondheim song running through my head. I found that almost every conversation I had could be related to a Sondheim lyric. I found an online message board called “Finishing the Chat”—a place for die-hard Sondheim fans to try to out-Sondheim each other. I was too scared to actually post anything, though.

The problem with this topic was that it was so specific to me. Sure, it was quirky, but I didn’t know how to make my readers care about this.

I had to figure out how to make the personal universal.

So, how do you do that?

At the bottom of pretty much everything major that we do, everything that’s important to us, everything we care about, there is a deep emotional truth to be found. And emotion is what connects people. If I could find the emotional truth behind my Sondheim obsession, I’d be able to make this relatable to others.

So I dug deep.

I asked myself: WHY did I love Sondheim’s music? Why was it so important to me, especially in high school? After all, I’d known about his music all my life. Why now, why to this degree?

I looked around me: what was happening in my life at the time was that my mom was battling breast cancer. My sister had just recovered from stage 1 non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I had some chronic health issues that were flaring up at the same time.

I looked within me: Because of all this upheaval, I was feeling stressed, anxious, scared, and alone—no one I knew in high school was dealing with similar challenges. I didn’t think anyone would be able to understand me.

But Sondheim’s music…was dark, cynically funny, dealt with themes like loss and change, the things that I was dealing with. When I listened to his music, I felt like someone knew my pain. I felt like I was not alone. Despite the dark themes in his musicals (I mean, Sweeney Todd is about chopping people up and baking them into pies for crying out loud,) I felt hopeful. The emotion behind Sondheim’s music gave voice to everything I was feeling, and I was extremely grateful, and moved by the power of art to relieve pain.

So that’s what my essay was really about, and that’s what I wrote about. Not just this odd musical theatre obsession. But this odd musical theatre obsession that highlighted how art lifted me out of my sadness and fear by communicating, by connecting.

Which, incidentally, was why I was applying to NYU to study theatre and writing in the first place.

So you can have a quirky story. Oftentimes, that works in your favor. But don’t get mired in your OWN story. Make the personal universal, and make it a story that others can connect to. Isn’t that the POINT of writing, anyway?


By Emily Herzlin, Admissionado Senior Editor