Unlike the essay prompt that resides at the start of the SAT Reasoning Test, the “personal statement” essay you will write for college admissions require a considerable amount of creativity. The template-based, mechanically structured essay that impresses SAT graders won’t fare so well in the eyes of an admissions committee, particularly at more selective colleges.
Forget the SAT. Forget the classroom.
A truly remarkable college essay benefits from a few extra ingredients, namely a healthy dose of creativity and a distinctive writing style. Unfortunately, most high schools don’t teach these skills when it comes to writing. Teachers tend to focus exclusively on the expository or analytical essay. This type of essay is immeasurably important in college and beyond, but provides poor framework from which to craft a college essay.
The structure of analytical essays tends to follow this pattern: a specific and provable thesis, pieces of supporting evidence with explanations, and a reiterative (if not outright redundant) conclusion. This works well for discussing literature or proving an argument. However, in the college essay, the subject matter is more dynamic—you are writing about yourself, your experiences, where you come from, perhaps where you hope to end up, and anything that has significantly impacted your life and the way you view the world. By confining yourself to the analytical structure, you are also ignoring the near-infinite number of ways to tell a story.
If that didn’t convince you to let go of your expository ways, consider this: The people who review your essay on a college admissions committee, potentially the gatekeepers to the institution of your dreams, read countless essays each day. Admissions counselors pore over dozens of folders filled with essays, grades, and scores. An unnecessarily verbose, intellectually formal, elaborately highbrow essay is unlikely to leave a good impression. A creative, perhaps even unconventionally structured piece of writing is certainly a better approach.
When form fits function.
How then, after years of writing academic essays, can you transition to creative writing? On a basic level, you need to match the structure to the story you are trying to tell. There’s a fundamental idea in biology that form fits function. In other words, the way in which an organism is structured has been tailored to be ideal for a particular function or activity. Similarly, the way your essay is structured should be the one most suitable to the story you are telling. Once you have this basic skeleton, you can start crafting your essay. Nonetheless, if some of your content or ideas morph over time, remember, even structure is flexible!
To be continued… Happy Writing!
Michael Rothberg is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor. He began tutoring his freshman year of college and is excited to help students conquer the SAT by unlocking their academic potential. Currently a rising sophomore at Harvard University, he is a Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology major and Staff Reporter at the Harvard Crimson.