Taking Chances With Your Essay

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” — Robert Frost


All of us who enjoy writing are tortured by Mr. Frost’s quote because we know he is correct, and curse ourselves daily trying to build complex characters that you, the reader, worship or loathe or fear, so that we can do terrible things to them and make you cry. Or gasp. Or both. But that’s fun at the same time, sort of, especially for those of us who write fiction.

For those of you writing college essays, let’s wander over to our masochistic friends in memoir… you’re going to be in their playground, because by and large, you’ll be sharing personal stories. And when we read personal stories we are intrigued, for the right reasons or wrong ones, whether they are a hero to us or we just want to see the b*tch taken down a notch, because we just love to see more of someone’s real painful truth than we ought to. So if someone pulls back the curtain, we peek in. And if what’s in there is scary or sad or funny or sickening, we remember it. We don’t often allow others in on that level, and as Bobby said up top – if it makes us cry or surprises us, then you’re in like Flynn.

So. How might this translate to a college application essay? Consider being a bit more painfully honest than you might have planned.

Wait. This is not to say you should bare your soul and offer up the most humiliating, shameful moment of your life. Especially if this is something which you are still very much recovering from emotionally or physically or is an ongoing trauma in your life. This is about being memorable and refreshingly transparent, not about freaking people out — including yourself.

That’s crazy. No school is worth it. Seriously. No — seriously. And there are plenty of articles out there warning about students who overshared. Don’t be a cautionary tale.

But our experience is that most students actually dial it down too much — they suck all the lifeblood out of, well, their life. In their anxiousness to say what they think schools want to hear, they end up with a very bland, one dimensional report. It certainly doesn’t offend, but it also doesn’t impress. College essays are about teaching the university about you, what defines you. They want to know what you’re proud of, or scared of, or excited about. They want to know why you feel the way you do.

A lot of personal growth is ultimately reactions and adjustments to a series of events over time. And for better or worse, some unpleasant moments yield the most growth. So, if you have a moment that, while painful/humiliating/saddening at the time, was also a period where you evolved, consider sharing it. In the end, the essay is about either who you are, or what college is (to you). Behind a lot of doctors is a personal story of loss that inspired them. There are plenty of lawyers who witnessed great injustice.  Yada, yada.  Now, don’t use this as a cheap tear jerker tactic. First, it makes you an as*shole and second, if they see it coming it won’t work. But if it’s legit, you might discover that this personal moment that you’re burying, could be the very story that a school would most like to hear.

So that leaves the issue of telling someone else. And the idea of an admission officer knowing that story makes you want to crawl into a dark and dusty corner? Totally get it. I mean for all the big talk here, you’ve yet to see me bust out with a personal example to prove this point, right? And I’m not gonna. Cuz I don’t want to, and I already have a degree. But let’s consider two things: a) here’s brutal, ex-lawyer, gloves-off honesty — remember the end game here – you want to get into this school, right?  You may be sitting on a true story that is naturally compelling and evocative — should you quash it for a subpar safe story that has to be pumped up with synthetic emotion?  And b) you’re not going for juice boxes with the admissions officer every weekend once you get to campus, so how often do you think you have to relive this essay? It would be damn unprofessional for her to rock up in the dining hall and put her arm around you and start talking about it. And that’s assuming she even remembered it eight months later.

Consider the incredible impact of a real story, with true emotion, over playing it safe with some bland cookie cutter ‘what I learned as team captain’ tale.

Will it be incredibly fun to write this? Nope. Will it possibly be the most real thing you’ve ever written? Maybe.

Something to consider.

Ok. Back to Instagram.