When I first started this work circa 2002, Stacy a senior from The Williams School showed me her college essay during a break in SAT class. Stacy had the good fortune of travelling to the Amazon River. “Everyone told me I should write about the trip.”
I read her well-written essay. It could have been lifted from a tourist guide brochure. Her essay was structured as a series of “I saw this and it was incredible. Then I saw that and, it too, was incredible.” The Amazon sounded incredible but Stacy… I didn’t learn much about her.
During my college summers, I was a counselor and teacher assistant at a summer program for gifted high school students. There were several thousand applicants that were winnowed down to five hundred in the final pool. These students had nearly identical grades and test scores. There were only 100 spots. The main decision point came down to the essay.
The winning essays revealed the candidate’s personality and character. The “stories” – like the Amazon tale – did not separate the better essays. Instead, the themes about the candidate did.
Dan, another student of mine from Guilford High School around the same time, listened to my “how to write a great college essay” speech. He wrote about his t-shirt collection. Sounds mundane and perhaps silly in comparison to an essay about the Amazon. But through the essay, Dan revealed his humor. It was a pretty funny topic. He revealed his values. Some of his t-shirts related to different community service activities. Dan revealed his personality as friends gifted him t-shirts that described him.
The college where Dan ultimately attended used his essay as one of its model college essays. As for Stacy, she rewrote her essay. The story was still about the Amazon but she shared different aspects of values (she really cared about the environment) and personality (she is enthusiastic about many things, not just extraordinary adventures). She, too, gained admission to a desired college and was told that her essay was excellent.