By Steven Flores
It’s 7:00 PM on Friday night. Do you know where your admissions reader is?
If it’s admissions season, they’re likely buried under an avalanche of college admissions applications. Their trained eyes are scanning summary figures—GPAs, ACTs, Class Ranks, Activities Lists— glazing over just in time for the essays. They need something lively.
Remember, they’re working overtime; it’s now the weekend, and they’ve been reading applications all week. So how do you get them to stop skimming and tune in to what you have to say? The answer lies, quite literally, in bringing them to their senses.
Consider the following opening scene, written by a former GalinEd student:
Clad in our black jackets and ties, my dad and I strapped two spindly wheels to our green Old Town canoe and rolled it down to the lake. A few joggers and bikers looked twice at our strange combination of attire and transportation choice. Beginning our journey, we forced our way through the dense clusters of lily pads until we broke free and found ourselves rocking in the chilly waves of the open water. The clear, crisp, windy September day was a perfect one to kick off Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Far from being “a series of vague abstractions”—a characterization I wrote about in my previous post— the preceding paragraph gives us a particular and vivid rendering of a truly unique scene. The admissions reader is transported from a stack of essays (or digital cue) into what novelist John Gradrner calls “the vivid and continuous dream” of the narrative. (John Gardner, The Art of Fiction)
How? By engagement with the senses: mainly sight, but also sound, touch, and even smell. For starters, the reader is immediately riveted by the incongruity of the narrator’s formal dress (“black jackets and ties”) with the task at hand: setting off on a canoe journey. Moreover, by giving us precise details about the canoe, the writer places us there alongside him, and the use of the proper noun, “Old Town,” establishes the authority of the narrator as a worthy guide through this world. The writer continues, showing us, through the passersby “looking twice,” that this is, indeed, an uncommon journey. Nonetheless, it is one that includes the reader. Finally, through deft choices in sensory adjectives— “dense clusters of lily pads”; “the clear, crisp, windy September day” —the reader is drawn along through the vehicle of the senses. By a sleight of hand, the writer has accomplished his goal of drawing the reader into the narrative.
But wait, you may object, this is an essay, not a novel! In fact, the personal statement is kind of a hybrid: it is a piece of writing in which a person—one who sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes—is telling a story about experience(s) that are meaningful and formative. In this task, the writer above isn’t shy about setting the scene (and you shouldn’t be either).
For proof, consider what is lost if the writer were to say, “My dad and I have this unique tradition: Every year, we row to across the lake to kick off Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.” By reducing from scene to summary, by reducing from showing to telling, the essay might grab the reader’s attention, but it won’t be able to hold onto it. Conversely, in just 93 well-chosen words, the author above is able to rivet the reader’s attention while leaving plenty of space to develop a marvelous essay (which he does).
In the third and final post in this series, we’ll further explore showing vs. telling, summary vs. scene, and how memory and backstory can make your essay truly stand out. For now, I would ask you to revisit your opening paragraph, and when you do, consider your admissions reader. If you see his or her eyes glazing over, try writing a scene, in real time, using sensory details. Use more than just sight. You never know—you may just transform their world.