An essay is an essay is an essay, right? Wrong! I hate to make Gertrude Stein sound ignorant, but her classic prose does not in any way, shape, or form, apply to academic admissions essays. Why? These essays are aimed at establishing one thing and one thing only. They are aimed at answering the eternal question of the admissions process, whether it be for colleges, universities, graduate programs, MBA programs, medical schools, or law schools. That eternal question is, “Why should this institution accept you instead of another person?” It’s as simple as that. Thinking that one essay is as good as another essay is just really missing the point. If you think that way, get rid of thinking immediately because I guarantee that it may harm your admissions chances. Flush it from all the nooks and crannies of your brain and focus on this central truth: your admissions essay must not suck.
There are two ways to argue something. You can argue something in the affirmative – your admission essay must be good. You can argue the same thing from the opposite side – your admission essay must not suck. I focus on the negative because most people are better at not doing something than they are in affirmatively doing something. It’s really important to focus on the fact that your admissions essay must not suck. It means it must not be generic. It must not be lifeless. It must not be boring. It must not be a brag-fest, wherein you’re just bragging about your accomplishments. It must not be slapped together in the last minute. Let’s go over these points so you can get a clear idea as to what makes a personal statement essay effective and not suck.
It must not be boring. Boring admissions essays are really just long, drawn-out expansions of your resume. But the truth is, if the admissions committee wanted to read your resume, they would have just asked for it. It’s that simple. If they just wanted to admit you based on your grades, they would’ve just cut out the admissions essay from the admissions package altogether. They don’t. They require that essay because that essay does have an impact.
Stay in the game by at least trying to be lively. Write a lively personal statement essay. In fact, a boring personal statement essay is the antithesis of the personal statement essay. If we all agree with the assumption that there’s no such thing as a boring or generic individual life, then by definition, there is no such thing as a boring personal statement essay. Each person’s life, if they are analytical, self-aware, and sensitive enough, is full of drama. It’s full of suspense, discoveries, simple joys, disappointments, hopes, and aspirations. In essence, it’s full of life. Why suck out the life out of your own personal narrative by creating a sucky personal statement essay that’s boring? You have to really change your perspective and really highlight what makes a particular incident exciting and different.
Remember, you are trying to separate yourself from the hordes of other applicants trying to get into the same school you are applying to. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by saying, “Yes, I’m just like them.”
The other extreme that makes any other essay suck is that it becomes more like an LL Cool J or Jay-Z rap video converted to paper. I’m talking about braggadocio, boasting, bragging, and ego-inflation. Everything is all about “I,” “me,” “mine.” Remember, the admission committee is trying to figure out who you are as a person but a key part of that analysis is how you see yourself as interconnected to something bigger, greater, and higher than yourself. If the highest level of your concern is yourself, then there’s a real problem.
If you look at the mission statements of many of the schools that people apply to, they’re always looking to prepare people that will be connected to, serve, and contribute to the world. How can a person whose sole aim and goal in life is to take as much from the world as possible to use people, to brag, and to dominate other people? How does that fit in with the general vision? See the problem? That’s why it’s very important that your narrative has to fit with the school’s narrative. I’m not talking about lying. I’m not talking about trying to be somebody that you’re not. But I’m talking about finding those strains within your personal narrative that fit into the story of a larger interconnected world.