Real life is dramatic enough

One of the surest ways to turn a college essay into a cliché is to inject drama that wasn’t actually there in the moment the events occurred.

Here’s an example:

I swallowed my fear as we plunged down the icy rapids under the watchful command of our river guide.

It sounds more like a trailer for an adventure movie than it does a teenager’s perspective on an experience. Take the drama out, put the real back in, and look what happens.

Our guide Zeke really seemed to know what he was doing. But that didn’t change the fact that I wanted to be just about anywhere else than in an inflatable boat about to head down a rapid.

The drama is still there, but it’s real. And more importantly, it’s connected to this particular student.

Here’s another example:

As I crouched into my starter block and steadied my nerves, I knew that all those hours of work and dedication had all come down to this moment.

It might sound good. But is that really what this teenage runner thinks as she’s preparing to race? What if she took the drama out and put the real back in?

The pressure of running the 100 meter is knowing that no matter how hard you’ve worked in practice, the race can still be decided in the first quarter of a second, a thought that always seems to creep into my mind right as the gun is about to go off.

Now we’re getting real thoughts from a real runner. And it’s still plenty dramatic.

Sometimes drama takes the form of big meaning, life lessons, or other larger messaging beyond just what actually happened.

The most eye-opening part of my time volunteering at the homeless shelter was the conversations I would have with the residents. I came to see them not as homeless people, but just as people. This gave me an entirely new perspective about how important it is to help people, which only served to reinforce my desire to be a social worker.

All of those statements might technically be true. But the supposed revelations and new perspectives are likely not as meaningful as the actual events were. Take the drama out and put the real back in.

I’ve gotten to know some of these people at the shelter. I know that Bill has two kids he hasn’t seen in five years and that he used to be a pilot before alcoholism took it all away from him. I know people like Bill need help to get their lives back, more than just someone who shows up twice a month to volunteer for a few hours. And I know now, a lot more so than I did before, that I want to study social work in college so I can make a career out of helping people who need help the most.

It’s more believable, more memorable, and yes, even more dramatic.

If you thought something, saw something, or learned something during an experience, say so. But don’t inject drama that wasn’t there. Real life is dramatic enough.