08 Mar The Seven Cs: The Quick-and-Dirty Way to Write an Admissions Essay
I’m proud to present The Seven C’s, my quick-and-dirty guide to crafting a highly effective college or graduate school admissions essay. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive, albeit more complicated, approach to the college essay, please check out Anatomy of an Admissions Essay, my revolutionary treatise on the mechanics and inner-workings of top-notch admissions essays.
What the heck is the Seven C’s?
I consider my Seven C’s system to be a breakthrough in admissions essay writing. My colleagues and I spend significant amounts of time trying to “break” admissions essay writing—to find the secret formula, the holy grail in order to make writing an exceptional personal statement as painless and foolproof as possible. The problem is, the more we try to create essay writing systems, the more we complicate the process. Usually, complicated systems have good results, but they’re, well, complicated, which usually means time-consuming. These is a freaking admissions essay, not a compendium of chess openings. On the other hand, simple systems almost always lead to paint-by-numbers essays.
The no-frills, yet highly effective system has been the unicorn of essay-writing. Great for daydreams, but good luck locating one in the flesh.
I believe the Seven Cs is that unicorn. And you’re about to grab it by the horn…
Those, my friends, are the seven C’s. Your college or grad school application essay should feature all seven, in that order. But before I explain each one and how it relates to the system, I want to ensure you’re familiar with the idea of keyframes.
In traditional animation, every frame had to be individually drawn. At 24 frame per second, that’s a lot of drawings. Then, some nerds invented computers, and those old school animators were able to stop having to draw all day every day, which prevented their arms from one day falling off. Oh, and it also made them unemployed and homeless. Anyway, the use of computers in animation did away with the need to define every single frame. Enter keyframes…
You tell the computer you want the character in a certain position at a certain point in the timeline. Then, you tell it what position you want the character to be in at another point in the timeline. You press a button, and voila! The computer magically figures out all the frames in-between!
Unfortunately, you don’t have a computer to have you figure out those middle bits. But you do have the keyframes. Yep, you guessed it—the Seven C’s are your seven keyframe sentences. If you can figure out seven measly sentences, you’re only a figurative button press away from discovering those middle bits.
This article will define every C/keyframe sentence for you. Once you know the purpose of each, you’ll know how to find your own version of Confusion-Cause-Character-Complication-Correction-Conclusion-Clarity to keyframe your essay.
And to help us illustrate these lessons, we will turn to another C… Costco!
Yes, you read that right, the much-loved membership store known for its bulk items will illuminate our path, in the form of one of the most read Common app essays of all time. Around this time a year ago, Brittany Stinson was in your shoes, mulling over essay topics in her quest for admissions glory. She decided to write about her muse, Costco, and on the strength of that essay (plus a whole bunch of impressive credentials), got into some fancy schools like Columbia, Yale, Dartmouth and Stanford. In other words, whether you like her Common App essay or not, it worked like gangbusters.
To be clear, I don’t know this person, and I had nothing to do with the development of this essay. Yet that’s what makes it so effective as an example to illustrate the 7 C’s—it contains every single one of them.
Before I explain how, please click on this link and read her essay. This article will reference it extensively, and none of my analysis will make any sense unless you familiarize yourself with the essay first. In fact, keep it open in another browser window. When you’re done reading, meet me underneath this line.
“Managing to break free from my mother’s grasp, I charged.”
Brittany’s Confusion keyframe sentence is the very first one in the essay. This will usually be the case. While it might sound like a bad thing to confuse your reader, when done right, it’s actually the best way to yank them out of their reality and into yours. In Brittany’s essay—Breaking free! Charging! Is this a prison riot? Trench warfare? We have no idea, but we’re eager to find out.
The opening of this or any other essay is the most important part. If you don’t grab your reader early, chances are, you never will. While there are many effective ways to do so, chucking your reader right into a scene in progress is a great approach that many top essays use. While you don’t necessarily have to use this specific technique to the letter to open your essay, you’ll be wise to use some manner of Confusion.
Now, I’m not saying to write in a different language or spout complete gibberish. The type of Confusion I’m talking about it catches your reader off-guard; it surprises, disorients, challenges. When wielded effectively, Confusion introduces your essay with a punch in a face. In a good way!
“I was a conquistador, but rather than searching the land for El Dorado, I scoured aisles for free samples.”
Eventually, Confusion must give way to Cause—otherwise, you’ll just annoy your readers. This next keyframe has a big job; it has to indicate to the reader what the essay is about.
Before Brittany’s Cause sentence, the essay is purely visual and kinetic. It offers no larger context to what the point of all this madness is. Though subtle, the Cause keyframe orients the reader, priming them for the rest of the essay.
With this sentence, Stinson is casting herself as a modern-day explorer. When you think explorer, what comes to mind? Excitement! Adventure! Discovery! El Dorado is a fabled ancient city made of gold—Gold! What do any of these things have to do with Costco? In Brittany’s world, everything, and it’s her Cause to show us how.
When it comes to your essay, use Cause to establish purpose or to telegraph the lesson that will be learned. It helps to get metaphysical here, and ask yourself, “Why does this essay exist?” More often than not, the answer to this is what this keyframe should represent. In this case, we can guess that this essay is about her keen sense of discovery. It’s not really about Costco, it’s about her curiosity. Yeah, another C word, sheesh…
“While enjoying an obligatory hot dog, I did not find myself thinking about the ‘all beef’ goodness that Costco boasted.”
The first keyframe presents Brittany as an irrepressible two-year-old. The next sections, which encompass the second keyframe, are a series of snapshots and recollections of a Costco childhood. Before the third keyframe, the Costco and discovery elements are established, so what’s next? Well, a story! Ask any admissions essay expert, and they’ll tell you, the most successful essays are personal narratives. And what every narrative needs is a central Character. You!
Back to the Costco essay. With this third keyframe, we meet seventeen-year-old Brittany Stinson, who now has a somewhat more mature outlook. In her previous incarnations, she was content to acquire free samples and people-watch while at Costco. Now, while she’s still obsessed with Costco, the products she finds there serve as catalysts for more existential musings—“If there exists a thirty-three ounce jar of Nutella, do we really have free will?”
This keyframe sets up the story and the main Character. Our girl Brittany is at her favorite place, thinking some very smart thoughts over some very mundane items. When approaching your own Character keyframe, think about the story you’re about to tell and the lesson you learned from them. The version of yourself that starts the story lacks that layer of understanding. They are you sans lesson.
“Purchasing the yuletide hickory smoked ham inevitably led to a conversation between my father and me about Andrew Jackson’s controversiality.”
A story isn’t a story unless something happens. Something good, something bad, something strange, something funny—whatever it is, without a Complication, all you’ve got is a bunch of Nutella. Delicious, sure, but not the stuff of great essays. And so, the fourth keyframe is Complication. For Brittany, it’s subtle, but it’s there. She has spent her whole life incubating her curiosity at Costco, but with this sentence, it’s becoming obvious that her curiosity has gotten so large, even Costco can’t house it anymore.
A discussion about the legacy of a former President doesn’t really fit in at a Costco. You know where it fits in perfectly? A university!
And that’s the Complication. Her curiosity has overstepped the bounds of even a massive store like Costco. Though it’s subtle, this sentence marks a point of no return. With it, her post-Costco life begins.
Keep in mind, your Complication can take different forms. It can be good or bad, internal or external, a thought or an action. The point is that it is the moment where a simple story turns less simple, when the fragile ecosystem of your story gets upended.
“I adopted my exploratory skills, fine tuned by Costco, towards my intellectual endeavors.”
The Correction keyframe follows Complication, which makes sense, right? Brittany will no doubt always carry with her a fondness for Costco, but she realizes she’d be better served in more intellectually robust environments (like, I dunno, Stanford?). Again, she does this quite subtly, but if you really analyze this essay—as I have—this keyframe is the moment that she leaves Costco behind in favor of “the warehouse that is the world.” It’s this keyframe that transforms free samples of granola and energy drinks into sampling the bounty of life at large.
It’s important to view Correction as the answer to the question raised by Complication. Equilibrium is upset in that previous keyframe, what is the response? How is the new equilibrium reached? While Brittany’s Correction is somewhat abstract and internalized, like Complications, Corrections can take various shapes and forms. It can be you modifying your plans, it can be people around you embracing something they initially resisted, it can be a decision, a reaction, a consequence, a thought process. As long as it’s a response to the Complication, it’s fair game. I will say, however, that the majority of admissions essays will have the Correction involving a decision or life choice, which comes from a more enlightened place than how the applicant were operating previous to that point.
“Costco fuels my insatiability and cultivates curiosity within me at a cellular level.”
Every story needs an ending, right? Well, this one is no exception, though it is subtle, like many other elements of this essay. Here, Brittany, despite her self-imposed exile from Costco, still sees the store as the source of her curiosity. By doing so, she’s turning it into a symbol. It’s not so much that she loves Costco, she loves the fact that Costco made her into the person she is today.
Granted, this Conclusion is a bit of an abstract one. You generally don’t have to force it. What is the natural climax to the story you’re telling? E.g. The cultural event you organized went off without a hitch. You know exactly what career you want to pursue and how you’ll pursue it. You cut that toxic friendship out of your life. Conclusion, as the name suggests, offers closure and permanence, from a story standpoint. It’s the moment where you can imagine a “THE END” appearing right after it. Ah, but we’re not done yet…
“Encoded to immerse myself in the unknown, I find it difficult to complacently accept the “what”; I want to hunt for the “whys” and dissect the “hows”.
Simply ending a story isn’t enough for an admissions essay. Yes, the Conclusion wraps up the plot, but what about the larger lessons gleaned from the experience?
In her essay, Brittany goes from her Conclusion of declaring her undying Costco-fueled curiosity to a Clarity keyframe that deepens her obsessive need for knowledge. She is not merely content with familiarity, she strives for mastery. Clarity is often linked to Cause. If you recall, the Cause keyframe clued the readers in to the theme of exploration. Clarity massively ups the ante. It’s about exploring things way beyond the scope of Costco in a way two-year-old Brittany could not begin to fathom. And part of exploration is self-exploration. In other words, like any good admissions essay, the real thing it’s about is the applicant. Take away the frivolities, this essay is really just about how she came to be the super inquisitive person she is today. She is no longer the not-quite enlightened person we met back at the Character keyframe. She has embodied the lesson that the Complication forced her to confront.
The best way to think of it is, Conclusion reflects the physical change, Clarity reflects the spiritual change. By ending on the Clarity keyframe, you will ensure that the essay serves its purpose as a document that reveals the real, self-actualized you.
Thanks for reading The Seven C’s. Feel free to give it a whirl in the development and/or the rewriting of your admissions essays. If you do, I’d really love to hear about your experience with it. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.