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©2010 Ted Cleary - College Essay Doctor

1.      Tell a Story­—don’t tell an Essay.
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A common complaint about application essays is that they are dreadfully boring, and a chief reason for their dullness is that they all too often fail to tell a story.  The tedious majority of essays fail to employ any of the inherently interesting elements of narrative: characters, setting, action, dialogue, plot, artful language, glimmering sensory details, suspense, passage of time, etc.  People like stories, after all, and a story is much more likely to hook a reader than the unstructured and lifeless collections of clichés that constitute so many application essays. 
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Outstanding personal statements are often about 75% story—meaning vivid and compelling narrative—and only about 25% analytical “essay.” (This is not a strict formula, naturally.) Keep in mind that you must first convey the essence of the experience before you can convince the reader of its influence.  All too many applicants go straight to the (often obvious) conclusion and neglect to include the interesting and living details of the experience itself.  
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2.      Employ sensory imagery: sights, sounds, scents, textures, tastes. 
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The best way to convey an experience and suck the reader into the world of the story is to vividly present the action in sensory language.  We all experience the world through our senses, so let the readers experience the world of your story through their senses, too.  By analogy, if you were making a movie, you would set the scene, get out of the way, and then record the action with camera and microphones.  That way, the audience can clearly see and hear the action for themselves.  Effective essays take a similar sensory and dramatic approach.  
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3.      Let the story speak for itself: no need to intrude and belabor the obvious.
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If done right, a powerfully told story usually contains the theme and the force of its own conclusion right in the weave of the narrative itself.  As a consequence, the writer need not always jump in and interrupt the story with intrusive language telling the reader “what to think.”  The attentive reader will know what to think simply by experiencing the well-told story.  You can then save your crisp and insightful conclusion for the end, to show that you can in fact reflect upon and meaningfully analyze formative episodes of your life.  
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4.      On “stay away topics”: if you are determined to write on a common theme, you must be extremely original in language and approach.  
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Some counselors advise avoiding certain topics as either “too common” or “too controversial.”  Common topics include--but are not limited to-- foreign mission trips, volunteer work in nursing homes, immigration adjustments, illnesses in the family, admired relatives, and sports experiences. 
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While I certainly understand the logic of this advice—and it is often good advice to give less imaginative writers—I can’t completely agree.  The reason why these topics are common, after all, is that they are usually based on powerful experiences.  Therefore, the fact that the experiences have meant something to the writer means that they could also potentially mean something to the reader—if written about well. 
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An essay on a “common” topic can indeed manage to escape cliché if written with exceptional skill and sensitivity.   With that said, however, a student will have to work much harder to stand out if the subject of the essay is common.  The writer will have to be very creative to find a fresh approach and also overcome reader resistance and fatigue.  So be forewarned that the bar is set very high for these types of essays.   
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Regarding “controversial” subjects, applicants do need to be mindful of their tone because they cannot always anticipate the reader’s reaction—and that reaction might in fact be reflexively or even unconsciously negative.  If a subject is extremely controversial, even incendiary, it is probably best to write about something else for the college essay and save the polemics for another time. 
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5.      Everybody has a story—in fact, many stories. 
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One of the typical reactions of students puzzling over college essays is the following: “Significant experience?  Life-changing event? Are you kidding me?  Nothing ever happened to me—my life is so boring!  I wake up, go to school, come home, eat, go on the computer, do my homework, go to bed—that’s it!  That’s my life—so dull!  How am I supposed to answer this question?”     
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Relax, my friend.  In that “boring” life of yours there is story—in fact, there are many stories—so many you couldn’t even begin to count them.  But first you have to find them.  You have to learn how to recognize them.  You must understand that although your life is utterly familiar to you—you are you, after all, and have inhabited your skin since before you were born—your life is not necessarily (or even at all) familiar to someone else.   Your life may in fact appear very exotic to other people. 
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Another thing to remember is that even when someone’s life appears fairly routine and plain on the surface, that same person’s inner life and personal perspective can be rich and fascinating indeed.  A perceptive person who is also a capable writer can transform the most mundane and seemingly unpromising of events into a great little story.  So do not despair.  You just might need to sharpen both your perceptiveness and your storytelling skills.

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