What fiction teaches us about writing application essays

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By Rob F.

While writing fiction and writing application essays may seem, at first, like two fundamentally different skills, the two have more in common than you’d think. Both are, in essence, a story: one of growth and transformation. As such, narrative strategies from fiction are essential in writing a personal statement that stands apart from the pack and adequately captures your particular voice. Here are five tips to consider as you dive into drafting your application essay.

Be a Hero

Like any great story, your application essay needs a protagonist  — and it needs to be you. Even if the prompt asks you for a person who’s been an inspiration or had a significant impact in your life, your first person point of view is what the admissions committee is really after. Therefore, any rumination on other people, current events, or experiences should be leveraged to help the reader understand who you are and how that came to be.  

Craft an Arc

Remember that your essay is not a prose description of your resume or a data-based argument. Rather, it should be a narrative, with a clear arc on your formation.

To decide what that arc is, begin by thinking critically about the most formative personal, academic, and career experiences you’ve had: what have you taken from each? No doubt, some have allowed you to explore a curiosity or deepen a passion, while others may have presented an unwanted challenge, but all led inexorably to where you are today. Perhaps they feel interconnected, or perhaps each feels like a separate narrative. For your primary personal statement, you should select whichever pathway will leave your reader with the clearest impression of what you, as a result of your experiences, would bring to a campus community. 

Some call this the “brand statement” or “the pitch,” but to torture my fiction metaphor, I’d call it the tagline. It doesn’t have to be some obvious, embarrassing declaration that you intend to change the world, but it should be compelling, pithy, and distinct. Remember that applicants are often admitted as a result of a single person on the committee vouching for them with the others. So picture that moment: what would the person who is “team you” say to make your case? What’s the one sentence tagline for your application? 

If you don’t have an answer, your essay isn’t yet complete.  

Embrace the Internal Logic

Once you know your tagline, be intentional about maintaining it across all components of the application. That means avoiding providing information in other essays or short answers that seems to directly contradict it. This isn’t to say you aren’t allowed to have diverse interests you, of course, contain multitudes but an overly scattered display of passions and experience can read as unfocused, making your narrative less clear. You become an unreliable narrator, unknowable, and therefore difficult to root for. 

Avoid Too Much Exposition

While some master literary stylists can get away with long stretches of expository writing, most of us need to ground our story in scenes: particular moments and events in which core truths become evident. When deciding where to show scenes versus exposition, consider the critical moments of change or transformation in your arc. Perhaps you’re telling a story about falling in love with providing clinical care; perhaps you’re telling one about gaining the confidence to speak in public; perhaps it’s about a loved one passing away. In any case, the crucial moments of action deserve more consideration and detail, signaling their import to your reader. 

Subvert the Form

Many will say that the worst mistake you can make is picking a hackneyed topic for your personal statement (see: “the mission trip essay,” circa 2010), but I tend to disagree: picking a common topic isn’t innately bad if your perspective and style are sufficiently distinct. Basically, the more typical a topic you choose, the more onus there is on you to subvert expectations through form and style. Just as a contemporary novelist can’t mimic the tropes of the Austenian “marriage plot” without it feeling a bit tired, you shouldn’t submit a version of the “realizing a passion for social justice” essay that could’ve been written by ChatGPT. 

Of course, breaking the mould is, by definition, tricky. But I often find that students benefit from first writing their stories in the most straightforward, chronological form, then playing around with different modes of formal experimentation. For instance, experiment with timing: try opening in medias res or using a single moment to bookend the essay. Also, look for opportunities to bring in more of your voice, whether that’s humorous or resonant. 

Your reader can learn as much about you from how you tell your story as its content. 

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