Last year, a student who'd applied to Harvard on his own called me in a panic.
"I've been waitlisted!" he told me. "What should I do?"
I'd known this student for a few years, so I knew that his grades and SAT scores weren't the problem. It was his essay.
It turns out that he'd talked about his dual interest in business and science. But clearly his essay hadn't been personal enough to make him stand out among all of the other remarkable applicants.
Over the next week, I helped him write a much more personal essay that showcased his vibrant personality. Explaining that he hadn't fully expressed himself in his first essay, he sent it in to the admissions office in the form of a letter.
A couple of weeks later, I received an email from him titled "!" He'd been accepted off the waitlist!
This is the power of telling the right story.
If you're a senior and you haven't yet finalized your personal statement for the January 1 deadline, you're probably wondering what the "right story" is for you. I've put together a list of the Top Three Qualities of a Remarkable College Application Essay.
1. Tell a deeply personal story about profound change
Now before you get nervous about this word "profound," let me clarify. I don't mean that you have to talk about how you became an Olympic gold medalist or how you traveled to Tibet to live with the monks. I mean that you want to tell a story of change that is significant to you.
Start here: think about what you were like at the end of middle school.
Got that image in your head? (If you're like me, you're thinking, "Awkward, self-conscious, socially anxious." Yeah, middle school's tough.)
Now ask yourself, "Who am I now?" What experiences or people have been important in creating that shift? It doesn't have to be a big, dramatic event. It can even seem quite small on the surface.
For example, one of my students who was accepted to Tufts wrote a beautiful essay about how wearing her hair in a ponytail changed her life.
This student had grown up using her pixie haircut to hide her cheekbones, which she felt were too wide. Creating the appearance of a narrow face became so all-consuming that she never went anywhere without a comb or a mirror, never played sports or drove with the windows down or went outside on windy days. So, when she finally got the nerve to pull her hair back, she freed herself from the prison of other people's ideas about what is beautiful.
This kind of internal shift, regardless of what caused it on the outside, is the kind of story you're looking for, too.
2. Make it vivid
If you want your reader to connect with your essay, your opening needs to leap off the page. Try to get as many senses involved as you can: sight, sound, smell, taste, feel.
Here's an example of a magnetic opening that I helped one of my students write a couple of years ago. (She's now attending NYU, her top-choice school.)
"My cousin Jack and I leap across the cushions of my parents' couch while a Japanese girls' group blasts from the speakers. A pair of leggings is draped around my neck, and one of my mother's red heels hangs from my left foot while my right foot is stuffed into her striped sneaker. Jack runs in circles around the living room, tripping over the yellow silk blouse he's wrapped around his waist, and pumps his fist to the music as he yells to our invisible fans, "Sing with me!" I hold out my cucumber microphone to the audience and urge them to join the chorus. "I can't hear you!" I scream."
Can you feel the energy of this opening? You can see, feel and hear these kids' love for music and performance. You know from the opening that the student is going to go on to talk about how creativity and love for music was so important to her development. In other words, you set the stage for the heart of your essay with a vivid scene.
You won't have space to weave in this level of detail throughout the whole essay, but once you've set the stage like this, a few colorful details woven throughout your essay will keep your story full of spark.
3. Offer a bit of mystery at the end
One of the hardest things my students struggle with is the ending to their essays. Either they feel like they have to tie everything up in a neat bow or they end up with overly-generalized and clichéd language.
Remember that you don't need to have everything figured out. It's okay if you don't fully understand how to make sense of your experiences. What's important is to make it clear that you're willing to stay with this confusion until the answers become clear.
One student wrote an essay about an uncomfortable experience she encountered on a trip to Laos and was struggling with how to end it. I encouraged her to let the discomfort remain in the ending. Here's what she came up with:
"Now, a year later, memories of the girls with the owl continue to force me to challenge ideas that I had always assumed were non-negotiable. And the girl in the threshold? For a moment that day, her gaze became mine, allowing me to consider the world from a perspective previously unknown. Those moments have enabled me to gain a little bit of comfort in facing difficult questions where the answers remain just out of reach."
When you allow a bit of mystery into the end, you let the reader know that you're okay with not knowing everything. That shows maturity, and it lets the colleges know that you're in a perfect place to dive into the complicated issues you're going to face in your college classes.
Elizabeth Dankoski has been working with elite students as a private tutor and college consultant for 15 years. Her unconventional approach -- ditching perfection in favor of passion -- has helped her students gain acceptance to all of the nation's top schools: Harvard, Caltech, MIT, Columbia, and Yale, among many others. www.elizabethdankoski.com