You’re constantly being told that your admission essay must STAND OUT, right? But what does that even mean? And isn’t “standing out” a ridiculously high standard for normal teenagers who haven’t been an astronaut or assisted with heart surgery after school?
Too much stress
The pressure to “stand out” from all other applicants is not only unrealistic, it can lead to stress for those of us who aren’t uber-humans. It can blind us to what is unique about us: our individual one-of-a-kind way of getting up every day and interacting with the world. And the pressure to stand out can cause us to make some essay blunders, which I’ll address in a minute.
So you don’t need to “stand out,” but you do need to “reach out.”
By “reach out,” I mean that your essay helps you makes an authentic human connection with the reader, in this case, an overworked admissions counselor. It doesn’t mean you speak directly to the reader, or try to be their best friend. It means that your essay allows the reader to see your personality, form a specific and positive mental image of you, and imagine how you might fit at that college. In other words, an effective essay lets the reader “get you.”
You can do this!
And the good news is that you, normal human high school student, can write an essay that reaches out and connects. Sure, you have to work at it a little bit, be willing to reflect and revise, and be open to feedback from counselors or teachers. But it’s much easier than trying to endow yourself with sainthood, genius, or artistic brilliance.
So how do you make a connection through writing? The same way you do in person: you show the other person that you are honest, relatable, and interesting. Of course in the essay, you have to do it all with words.
Here are three ways to reach out through your writing.
1. Be a human being. (And don’t put down your fellow humans.)
When applicants think they have to “stand out,” they sometimes try to show themselves as “different” (that is, better) than everyone else. And by doing so, they can come off as less than reliable and honest narrators of their own life. Either they are the lone “sensitive artist” at their school, or the teenage saint who spends her Saturday nights volunteering at the nursing home when all the other kids are out beating people up. When students elevate themselves over their peers in this way, they can risk being seen as naïve, or lacking the emotional intelligence that colleges really want. The human being that’s reading your essay probably is NOT thinking, “Wow, Emily is so amazing, but everyone else at Central High is a selfish, untalented, soulless loser. Emily is going to be the last person we accept from the that failure factory.” Rather, he or she thinks, “Geez, what’s wrong with Emily that she looks down on everyone else? She might be talented, but she is clueless about other people.”
When you want to use your essay to “reach out” to your reader, don’t put others down to make yourself look better. Unless you’re talking about your internship with ISIS, you probably want to find the goodness in the other people you write about.
2. Be your wonderful, imperfect self.
Just as we can’t make ourselves look good by dissing others, we also don’t connect if we take ourselves too seriously. Think of the people you admire – your friends, a teacher, an artist, maybe even a parent. Are they perfect? Probably not. Nobody can really engage with “perfect” people, or people who try to come off that way. Most of us like – and relate to - fellow humans who can admit shortcomings. College admissions counselors are no exception, especially since they are looking for people who can grow and change. So if you can share an example of a time you made a mistake and learned from it, you’re on your way to connecting with your reader and showing your character. Maybe you took the wrong class, had a bad relationship with a teacher, or made a dumb mistake at work. You might consider working it in, even in a small way. You don’t have to trumpet your failings, or fill the essay with your screw ups, but do consider showing a wart or two.
3.Be yourself – specifically.
If you want to connect with the admissions counselor reading your essay, you’ve got to paint a picture of yourself that the reader can see and hear. You can only do that with concrete language, not generalizations. You should avoid sentences like these: “I was recognized as a leader as a result of my hard work.” Or “I’ve always been a people person.” Why? Because they can be boring and they don’t say enough about the specific writer, unless there’s a concrete example attached. Anyone could make those statements – and many students do. Can you imagine the admissions counselors gathering after receiving hundreds of essays filled with empty generalizations? “Okay, I’ve got 70 hard workers, 35 people persons, and yep, everyone is a leader again this year.”
Ditch the abstractions and cliches if you really want to engage your reader and be interesting. Instead focus on giving your readers concrete images, sounds, even smells! Let them feel that they are there with you. Here’s a couple of tips: don’t let three sentences go by without some specific concrete details. And if you’ve got a generalization, try saying it out loud. Does it sound phony? Does it sound like BS? The take it out or make it more realistic.
So as you write, remember: you can do this! Show your own specific wonderful personality, share an imperfection, and show some love to your fellow humans. You don’t need to stand out, you just need to reach out.
I can’t guarantee that writing as essay that shows you to be honest, relatable, and interesting will definitely get you into every school you apply to. But I can promise it will help.