Admissions 101: What Admissions Essays and Wedding Speeches Have in Common

Business School Admissions

Who's the lucky guy?

Next week yours truly will deliver a speech at a wedding. I have known the groom for nearly two decades, and I consider him to be one of my closest friends, even though distance unfortunately keeps us apart most of the time (I live in California and he lives in Beijing). While I don’t consider myself to be an expert toastmaster, I’m not too worried, since I know that what makes for a great admissions essay or personal statement also makes for a terrific wedding speech.

Think back for a minute and consider the last few weddings you’ve been to. If you’re lucky, you only have witnessed great wedding speeches and toasts, but odds are that you’ve sat through at least one or two bombs. What accounts for the difference?

While your first answer might understandably be, “It’s how comfortable the person is about delivering speeches in front of large groups,” I don’t really think that’s the case. Yes, no one wants to watch the poor guy stand up there and sweat bullets as he fumbles with a piece of paper covered in smeared ink, fumfering into the microphone for what seems like 20 minutes. Delivery absolutely matters.

But content outshines delivery almost every time. Here’s one common culprit that’s made more than a few wedding toasts bad: The speaker just focused on cracking jokes, and left you scratching your head as to who he is, what he has to do with all of this, and why he chose to tell that story of what he saw the groom do in New Orleans back in 2004. Although he probably thought it was funny, you were eyeballing the buffet the whole time, wondering when was going to finish. He didn’t connect with you, and you ended up caring about him or his relationship with the lucky couple no more than when he started.

Now think about the ones that you have enjoyed. Even the Nervous Nellies deliver good toasts when they’re willing to get a little personal. The good speakers reveal a little bit about themselves, and in doing so they help you get to know them a bit better. They share a vulnerability or concern that we’ve all felt at some point, and everyone shares a small appreciative chuckle. They present a side of the bride and groom that you’ve never seen before (and actually want to see). They make you care a little more. They connect with you.

A great speaker — just like a great admissions essay writer — doesn’t need to leave them rolling in the aisles. Humor helps, but only to the extent that it helps to present and accentuate personal stories that make you feel like you now know the person on more than a superficial level. I already have some idea of the speech I’ll deliver next week (I prefer to wing it a bit), and there will be a few dashes of humor. But, more than anything, it will be a tribute to the bride and groom that comes from the heart.

A great admissions essay works in the same way. It doesn’t focus on devices and gimmicks; it just delivers a message that the reader will leave the reader saying, “I really enjoyed that. He seems like someone I’d like to get to know more.” Whether you’re talking about what matters most to you (… and why), or discussing a time when you failed as part of a team, or discussing where you see yourself in your career ten years from now, this same yardstick applies. Putting a little bit of your self out there — even though it seems risky… no, especially when it seems risky! — is the difference between a bore of an essay and a terrific one.

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One Response

  1. Mike says:

    Very well stated!!!

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