Updated: Oct 7, 2022
The secret to a good essay has nothing to do with the topic!
Alright everyone, this is the most important post. If you only read one, make sure it's this one.
I mentioned in my last post that the main goal of admissions essays is to help the admissions officers get to know you. Think of your essay like a story about yourself to help you pick a topic.
But having a unique topic isn't very important. There are only so many things most high schoolers can do, so you will inevitably write at least some essays on topics colleges have seen before. Plus, doing macramé in the alps doesn't really tell us anything about your personality.
Two Key Tips
Topic is less important than execution (how you write your essay).
If you imitate something, your version will always be worse. Don't try to copy clickbait "this essay got into every top school" essays that go viral on social media. Instead, go to professionals like David Sedaris or your favorite TED Talk for inspiration.
The Two Yous
Okay, let's get into it now. There are two completely different versions of you in your essay!
You as the main character (what happens in the story; you in the past)
You as the narrator (how you tell the story; you in the present)
Narrator-you is more important. It's the version of you admissions officers will actually decide to admit or reject. Why? Because that's one who exists in the "present!"
Your goal is to create the illusion that you're sitting in the room and talking to the admissions officers in real time.
Think about it. If someone tells you a boring story, don't you feel frustrated? We learn just as much, if not more, about you from your writing style (your “voice”) as we do from your actions. While it’s helpful to see that you spearheaded a project or learned an important lesson, narrator-you is where your personality really comes across. For example, is your writing funny, sarcastic, serious?
A growth essay has to start with a flaw. If you're perfect, you don't have any room to improve! Separating character-you (who exists in the past) and narrator-you (who exists in the present) allows you to talk about your past shortcomings without negatively impacting your application.
Let's say your area of growth (your Y-axis if you're using the Mulan 3-Part Growth) is cooking (or anger management, or learning to let go of being a perfectionist, etc.).
No buffer (bad example):
I couldn't cook even a simple omelet, and it made me so angry that I would throw spatulas across the room.
This makes you seem pretty unlikable.
Buffer (good example):
It's crazy that I couldn't even cook a simple omelet back then. Thinking about it now makes me laugh, but I remember botching one so badly that the outside was burned and the inside was raw. I got so angry that I threw the spatula across the room.
Because of buffering, character-you's anger is filtered through the lens of narrator-you's improved maturity and perspective. Character-you might have the same anger issue, but narrator-you is likable and pretty self-aware.
Try it out!
Let me know in the comments if this helped you with your personal essay!