Quick Reminder: Tell One Big Story, Not Several Small Stories

When you look down at a college application and see you have a half-dozen essays to fill out, it’s very easy to think “I’ll just do this essay today, those in a week, and those I can do quickly so I’ll wait until I sent my app out.”

Here’s the problem–you’re not seeing your essays the right way. Rather than having six individual essays, it’s better to think of them as six chapters in one big story that you are submitting to the universities for reading consumption.

This means that if the story you are pitching is “young girl who overcame a broken leg and medical issues to get straight A’s and succeed in soccer” then it doesn’t make a ton of sense to have one essay devoted to your favorite European destination. Similarly, if your story is “boy who overcame emotional anxiety to become a strong actor,” it probably won’t fit in to talk about any athletic accomplishments you had.

The reason essays exist on your applications is not solely so the admissions committee can see how well you write (though that is certainly part of it). It exists in part so that the school knows who you are. I’ve already emphasized before how GPAs and test scores can blur together, but memorable stories stand out. The only way–the only way–to tell a story like this is through your essays.

But if you’re telling several divergent, incongruent stories, the power gets lost.

So remember: tell one big story, not several smaller stories.

Quick Reminder: This Is NOT An English Essay

A common refrain I hear from clients is “I’m worried about this because I’m not a good writer,” in large part based on their English essay grades. While I understand what this is saying, this is equivalent to saying, “I’m not a good athlete.” It implies something, but for the sake of the discussion, it’s not specific enough. A basketball athlete? A tennis athlete? A baseball athlete?

Thus, when I get that question, I in turn typically ask my clients, “what kind of writing have you done?” For 90 percent of high school students, the answers will revolve around class essays for English, history, and a few other subjects. Occasionally, you’ll get the student who has worked for the school newspaper or writes a blog that actually gets traffic, but those students wouldn’t be saying “I’m not a good writer.”

The reason I ask this is simple–your college essay is NOT an English essay.

You will need to follow certain rules such as proper grammar, good flow, and compelling content, but this is not a literary analysis or a historical thesis paper. This is your story. This is your life, come to being on the page. This is creative writing, but it’s not really creating something so much as it is bearing the most compelling part of you that already exists.

So no, you don’t need to be a good English essay writer to write a good personal statement. You don’t need to have gotten an A on all of your research papers to feel confident about your application essays. You just need your most compelling story, a willingness to do a few drafts, and a willingness to tell the truth of your story in full.