By Steven Flores
For many students, writing the personal essay is uncharted territory. This can result in a student relying on a list of accomplishments joined together with transitional phrases. Couple this with the fact that college admissions officers read hundreds (if not thousands!) of essays in a single admissions season, and it is no wonder that many essays are interpreted, as one UVA admissions officer puts it, “as a series of vague abstractions.”
So, how does one stand out amidst the sea of applications? The answer lies in diving deep into a topic. In this post, we’ll talk about structure, and in the posts that follow we’ll talk about summary vs. scene, and that hallmark principle of narrative writing: show, don’t tell.
After several years of teaching writing, I’ve noticed a common structure that is helpful for students writing reflective essays, especially for students writing the college application essay. One of the reasons that this structure is so successful is because it asks students to think back from the current moment to tell a story not only of who they are but who they will be. It’s a tall order, but it gets easier when students have a structure. One of the most elegant structures for this type of writing is what I’ll call the Deep Dive.
The Deep Dive operates on the distinction between story and plot. While “story” refers to the chronological order of events, “plot” refers to the events of the story arranged to maximize dramatic effect. In the Deep Dive structure, the plot starts in the beginning of senior year, or late in junior year, and dives deep into the past, to freshman year, or further, to childhood.
While a strictly linear structure can leave the reader feeling directionless, the Deep Dive gives the reader a clear sense of direction and narrative tension.
A few things to keep in mind about the Deep Dive structure:
- It starts with a particular moment, a vivid scene taking place in real time. This rivets the reader and immediately establishes the stakes (i.e. this is why my story is important.) If you’ve seen Pulp Fiction you’re familiar with how this works. The plot begins with a holdup in a diner before moving back to the past to explore how the protagonists arrived at this point. And while they aren’t writing film noir, students can use this same structure to capture the drama of their lives and establish themselves as characters in a success story.
- The Deep Dive narrative shows the student’s determination in the face of challenge, their development over time, and the causal relations between their story, who they are, and who the will be.
For instance, a student about to make a huge speech before an important crowd flashes back to the time he spent in childhood isolated and overcoming a speech impediment. In the course of doing so, he encounters all the people and institutions that made him who he is and gave him confidence. He uses the scene of the speech to show how far he’s come and to presage where he will go.
Another example: a student returns to the camp he attended as a child, this time as a counselor, and reflects upon how the camp was formative of him and his identity as a competitive person who still acts selflessly for the good of the team.
The deep dive structure can really help a student who is stuck in their writing. Moreover, these examples show how an essay can have vivid cinematic openings that allow them to immediately individuate themselves rather than remain a “series of vague abstractions.”
In the next post, we’ll talk about opening scenes: what makes them resonate, and what makes them fall flat. For now, I would encourage students to at least try the Deep Dive structure. The result might be a vivid and elegant story–just the kind selective schools are looking for.