When you hear the word “college application essay” or “personal statement essay,” one crucial word in those phrases may make you believe you have to be a great writer: “essay.”
Hearing the word essay likely invokes memories of reports about themes in The Count of Monte Cristo, a historical analysis about the implication of the 1812 War, or a case study in a psychology class. All of these require strong, technical writing skills, and if you struggled in English or hated learning about the Oxford comma, there’s a great chance that hearing that may make you groan.
But there’s something crucial to know about when it comes to these essays that can make your life much, much easier.
It’s not about your writing. It’s about your story.
Necessary, Not Sufficient
To write a great story, it is necessary to have writing without grammatical errors, incorrect verbiage, or glaringly bad typos. This is true whether you’re writing fiction, a thesis paper, or a blog post. If this blog post used apostrophes incorrectly or misspelled words, it would stand out rather egregiously.
But that just sets the floor for your writing, it doesn’t actually raise it to the level you want it to.
When the admissions committee reads your story, they want to do so without getting pulled out of the story by the aforementioned mistakes. But simply avoiding these mistakes won’t make for a great essay–it’ll merely ensure that you meet the necessary requirements to avoid having a bad one.
It’s the Story
Name your favorite movie. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, Captain America: Civil War–those are just a few for me.
Name your favorite books. The Coldfire Trilogy, American Gods, The Name of the Wind, Game of Thrones–those are also just a few.
What do all of these have in common, regardless of their medium? They’re great stories.
Explaining why these are great stories goes beyond the point of this post, but the universal acclaim they have, the repeated viewing/reading nature of these stories, and the way they have invaded modern culture says everything about the quality of those stories.
And do they have great writing? Well, some of them, yes. The Avenger films are notorious for having great humor in them, and no one would ever call Neil Gaiman or George RR Martin a bad writer.
But do you know who has been called a bad writer? Stephen King and James Patterson. Two of the greatest selling authors of the last 50 years have received critiques for poor writing quality. You can find similar, harsher criticisms for E.L. James, author of the 50 Shades series.
So if their writing is mediocre, why do they sell like fresh ice cream on a weekend in July?
Because their stories are too compelling not too read.
It’s Your Story
Everyone has a story to tell. Just because you haven’t traveled to an exotic country, won an Olympic medal, met a president, or won a national award doesn’t mean you don’t have a story to tell. My story–specifically, the one I wrote for my college applications–involved growing up and taking ownership of my life after an embarrassing story at the gym.
Another person’s story talked about overcoming their alcoholism. Another talked about starting a business off of rare shoes. Another talked about using statistics to improve their defense in high school basketball.
Some of these had great writing. Some of them had writing that was good enough.
But all of them told a story that made you want to read more, to learn more about what’s going on. Their stories sucked you in and didn’t let you go until the final period.
That is what college application essays are looking for. They are not looking for technically strong writing that makes a reader go “oh, man, their handle on metaphors is perfect.” They are not looking for an essay that you would submit to your English teacher.
They are looking for your story. What is your unique, compelling story? How do you stand out?
Those are questions for another day–but for now, just take solace in one simple fact.
You don’t have to be a great writer to write a great college application essay. You just need to have a great story.
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