University of Virginia blogger Dean J recently posted answers in response to applicants’ questions about the essays. One response addressed several queries about the best way to either “grab the reader’s attention” or “stand out.”
“I wish whoever is telling students they have to be completely unique in their essays or that their application has to ‘stand out’ would take it down a notch. Most students write about normal things like their family, an academic interest, an activity, a piece of literature/music/art that influenced them. You can write about the same book that a dozen other people do and what will make your essay different is that your reaction to the story will be yours alone.”
I agree with the overarching point of the response, but I would add some additional nuances if I were answering the question.
The two most important words in that response are “yours alone.” The best college essays, no matter the prompt, word count, or school, are those that only the applicant could write. At Collegewise, we call this “owning your story.” And while some students may have experienced something that nobody else applying to college has, in most cases, you take ownership of a story by injecting as much detail into it as possible.
Your experience working a part-time job is not like every other student’s experience.
Your experience discovering how much you enjoy art is not like every other student’s experience.
And as related in the UVA example, your reaction to a particular book is not like every other student’s reaction.
But any one of those responses, if devoid of enough detail, could in fact say exactly the same thing that many other writers expressed. Lots of part-time workers had to juggle many responsibilities on the job. It’s not uncommon to be pleasantly surprised that you enjoyed a course. And you were not the first to find Huckleberry Finn fascinating because it gave you insight into a different period of U.S. history.
As the UVA blogger points out, you don’t need to artificially inject attention-grabbing strategy into your application. But ownership isn’t granted just because you decide to write about your experience. Ownership must be claimed by injecting the detail.
The formula we use at Collegewise:
1. Could someone else tell this story? If so, inject more detail.
2. If you can’t find enough detail to take ownership, choose a different story.
You are, in fact, one of a kind. There is no carbon copy of you applying to college. And those stories that are uniquely yours? They’re what make you unique.