One way to think about the college admissions essay is to see it as the vehicle that puts your interior life on display. For those who have grown up in cultures that do not particularly foster such revelation—as in China—that can be difficult.
What do I mean by your interior life? To use a rather tired metaphor, think of an iceberg–a little bit above the water line and a whole lot below. Well, you’re kind of like that iceberg. You have your exterior facade that you show to the world and then you have all the stuff going on below the surface, in your mind.
Your college admissions packet is filled with information that represents the external you: your grades, your activities, your standardized test scores, the number of advanced courses you’ve taken. The college admissions essay is the place to reveal the interior you–shedding light on what motivates you and engaging your reader emotionally.
Consider some of the essay topics developed over the last year by my students:
- A Chinese-American student writing about the load of obligation he carries around from his family’s expectations.
- A gay student discussing a friendship that ended when she came out.
- A student talking about the depression he experienced after the death of a friend.
These essays have served those students well as they have gained admission at the nation’s most selective schools. Frankly, honestly, and often bravely, these students have put their real selves on display and, in doing so, have made an impact on their readers.
If you understand what I’m saying here–and why I have promoted the fine art of storytelling in my book Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps–then you’ll surely understand why it’s such a big mistake for you to approach this assignment as an invitation to parade your accomplishments.
You’ll do so much better revealing the yearnings, vulnerabilities, aspirations, disappointments, and the other facets of your interior life that distinguish you as a real person.