Three words that could get you accepted to the University of Chicago: make it new.
First, find a story you know really well. Or choose a story that lives in the public consciousness. Cinderella, for example, or Santa Claus.
Then take that story and do something new with it.
Like what? Change the location: put Cinderella in your own school, for example. Or change the perspective: be Cinderella, or better yet be the misunderstood stepsister and tell her story. (Gregory Maguire is an author who, among others, reinterprets fairy tales.) The sky’s the limit here.
But this above all: be sure your essay answers the question “So what?” Why? It will lead you to insight, which is possibly the most important quality an essay (of any kind) can provide its reader. Kati Sweaney (Assistant Dean of Admissions at Reed College) agrees with me, and in conversation last month told me (that’s the College Essay Guy) that she can tell a student is ready for college-level work if that student can answer the question “So what?” So write that question at the top of your essay, in the margins, and at the end.
Want an example of a rad essay that uses narrative structure, makes something new and answers “So what?” Go here where you can read Jacqueline Kwon’s amazing reinterpretation of “Why did the chicken cross the road?” You’ll also find an essay by Christian Lau, who had to answer one question in order to get into the University of Chicago. The question? A simple one: Rock, Paper or Scissors?
Then find out if either of them actually got in.
So here’s a quick re-cap of what we’ve learned so far today:
#1. Essays are like movies, and their structures are there for the stealing. Ahem, borrowing.
#2. But don’t just steal. Do something original. Make it yours. Make it new.
#3. Answer “So what?” in the essay. Then answer it again. Then again. Keep going till you’ve said something original. Something smart. Something you didn’t expect to say.
Then make sure you pack extra mittens.
Because Chicago winters are crazy cold.
Book quotation background image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Ethan Sawyer has been helping students tell their stories for more than ten years and is the author of the Amazon bestseller College Essay Essentials, the #1 book on college essays. He has reached thousands of students and counselors through his webinars and workshops and has become a nationally recognized college essay expert and sought-after speaker. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, received an MFA from UC–Irvine, and is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, SACAC, OACAC, HECA and IECA (feel free to Google those) and lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.collegeessayguy.com.