There is a wealth of good advice out there on how to write your essays. Particularly of note is Montauk’s book, which highlights all the points you are going to want to touch upon in your written application. However, I feel this formulaic approach fails to essay writing fails to put enough emphasis on the fact that the adcom members, who will be reading your writings are human beings, not machines grading a formula. Human beings like to simplify things. Categorize, simplify, understand. So you have to make that task as easy as possible, and the way to do it is to make sure your essays and application tell pieces of the same coherent, sensible and entertaining story. Yes. Entertaining. Don’t think that emotions are not going to come into play here. Know your reader and what they are looking for, but remember, you reader is still a human being. When I say entertain, I don’t mean you need to throw one-liners in there, but what you do need to do is make sure that every piece of information you present plays off one another to paint a clear, easy to understand picture of who you are. And it should be a picture that they’ll enjoy taking a look at.
I had an adcom member describe the process of reading an application to me. She said that she reads all of your essays, experience, grades, scores etc., and then tries to “rewrite your story” so that she can understand it. Think about how you function in your own life when you meet people the way they act, the things they say, the tidbits of information you pick up about their past you do the same thing with it. You take the story they are telling you and reconstruct it into your version, which forms your opinion of the person. Sometimes, everything checks out, and the story the person is telling – eg the words coming out of their mouth matches everything else you pick up about them. However, if someone is telling you how wonderful they are, and then you start picking up on items that contradict that story or just don’t match up, you start forming your own picture. Telling me how you live for the love of animals while eating a t-bone? Explaining your deep desire to be an actor but you weren’t even in so much as your high school play?
So your job is to make the “rewrite” of your life the adcoms are going to do on your application as easy as possible. You are telling a story. So every chapter has to fit. This is especially important to remember when you get the personal philosophy questions that seem like they may be outliers. If you could have dinner with one person, who would it be? If you could be present for one event in time, what would it be? Give these a lot of thought, as they have to fit into everything else. Use them to strengthen your story – don’t go off on a tangent point. If you are going to say you want to have dinner with Martin Luther King Jr., you can write a fairly compelling essay on why – he was an amazing figure. However, do events in your life lead up to that kind of aspiration? Are you involved in any civil rights activities at all? Or is it just going to hit the adcom in the face, coming completely out of the blue and not matching anything else they’ve read about you?
It’s going to be impossible to get the absolute total and complete essence of you into a set of essays. So go for a version of you that you can sell, and stick to it. Try to come up with one line that sums up the “you” you’ll be presenting before before you start, and use it as a litmus test first for all of your background information. If it passes, then use it as a qualifier for every essay you write. In the end, one line about you is probably what is going to stick in the adcoms mind when they make their decision. You’ll be categorized, decided upon and summed up in one line of thought. If everything you present fits together absolutely tightly, you get to write that one line. If not, they’ll write it, and for starters, they will not think you have a clear picture of who you are and where you want to go.