08 Jan Anatomy of an Admissions Essay
It’s a new year, and with it comes a paradigm-shifting new way of looking at essays. Courtesy of me, Statement Guru.
I’ve been wanting to put out something like this for a long time, as a way of bringing together a lot of my previous teachings while advancing the discussion. The discussion of how you can write a kick-ass admissions essay discussion, that is. This is big. Dare I say game changing?
First, some background…
I believe that one of the most challenging things about writing, both generally and for admissions essays, is how non-visual the process is. We, as humans, want visuals. We crave visuals.
When putting together a presentation, would you present information in a dry Excel format or would you make a pie chart? It’s a no-brainer, you’d make a pie chart. Why? Because we crave visuals (and also, pie).
But where’s the admissions essay equivalent of a pie chart? A visually-oriented representation of your essay, so you can see, at a glance, what’s working and what isn’t?
This issue has perplexed me for a while. I even had a small section in my book (available in paperback or Kindle!) about how to visually inspect your draft.
But now, I’m about to take you into the Matrix. You will see your admissions essay draft in a way that cannot be unseen. Not that you’d want to unsee it, since you’ll find this new perspective tremendously advantageous as you write and rewrite it.
Ladies and gentleman, I present to you…
Anatomy of an Admissions Essay!
What you’re looking at is a color-coded admissions essay. Specifically, it’s for a graduate program in a STEM field, but the system works just as well for undergraduate applicants.
My goal with the color coding is to assign particular functions to each component of the essay. By doing so, we can see at-a-glance what different parts of the document are attempting to do and why.
YELLOW is for thesis elements. You can read my previous posts on thesis statements here, here and here. Essentially, it’s the central argument of your essay, which provides a thematic thread throughout. It’s the declaration, the catchy chorus, the blueprint. Due to confidentiality reasons, I can’t show you this essay itself, but I can tell you that its thesis is about the applicant’s love for solving puzzles. Throughout the essay, the concept of puzzles gets broadened from literal puzzles to the puzzles she solves as a researcher and worker in her chosen field.
GREEN is for objective statements. In other words, things that actually happened or the dissemination of information. No opinions, analysis or emotions. Just cold, hard facts. An objective/green statement would be, “I majored in Biology.” A lot of admissions essays I come across go overly green. Green is great for the environment, NOT for admissions essays. An excessively green essay is what I disparagingly call a “prose resume”—dense with information about what you’ve done, but ultimately unsuccessful because other crucial elements were sacrificed in the process. That said, you still need a lot of green. Just make sure your essay is not overwhelmingly green.
BLUE is for subjective statements. Not things that happened, but your take on things that happened. Whereas green is “I majored in Biology,” blue would be, “Biology is the greatest major ever.” For more narrative passages, blue represent emotions. Feeling tremendous anxiety during a recital is blue because it’s intangible. Whereas saying you played Moonlight Sonata in that recital is green because it’s a statement of fact.
RED represents statements of Challenge and Triumph. This is a bit tricky because some of the red bits could also be blue, green or even yellow. But it’s important to uniquely categorize moments of true hardship and adversity. Why? Because those tend to be the most transformative, revealing moments in a person’s life, and that’s the stuff that will make the essay soar. Challenges and triumphs also tend to coincide with epiphanies, breakthroughs and failures (yes, failure can be your friend in admissions essays). Red tends to occur in the beginning and middle of the essay.
PINK is simply a way of marking usage of I, Me and Myself. You can read about the importance of consistently including those here. If there’s a passage of your essay without those pink specs, take it as a warning sign that the section might not really about you (and should potentially be cut), or it is about you but you’re being too passive in it. Too much pink can be a problem, too, as you’re probably coming off as too braggy.
Now that you have an idea of what’s what, let’s look at the other major component of the essay’s anatomy, its structure.
1. SMILE AND A HANDSHAKE – The name of the first paragraph is taken from here. Essentially, it’s this paragraph’s job to introduce the reader to the applicant in an exciting, appealing way. This is often done with an anecdote or an insight. As I mentioned before, this essay starts off about puzzle-solving, and it does so with a story, which sets up the thesis statement at the end of the paragraph. But you already probably figured that because of all the yellow! Indeed, this paragraph should have a chunks of yellow, especially towards the end.
2. RE-ORIENTATION PARAGRAPH – With the thesis out of the way, it’s important to get the reader up to speed. Ditch the stylistic devices of Paragraph #1 in favor of some background information or descriptions. In this essay, the applicant gives us some info on her undergraduate years. Paragraph 2 is usually heavy on the green and blue. There’s a smattering of yellow in this case, which references her thesis in an effective way (usually, yellow=good). There’s a lack of red here, which is pretty typical for this section.
3. CHALLENGES/EPIPHANY – It is in this section that assumptions are tested, tensions ratcheted up, the gauntlet is thrown down. Hence, the red. There also tends to be self-discovery or decision-making that ties into that. In this case, it is in this section that the applicant finds her true calling, and she links it back to her love of puzzles (with yellow). The end of this paragraph is essentially the halfway point of the essay. In order to generate the momentum to finish strong, it needs a rebirth or transformation, whether through victory or failure.
4. GALVANIZED – Coming out of a “hopefully” solid midpoint, Paragraph 4 features a recharged you, passionately pursuing your calling, righting past wrongs, kicking ass and taking names. In this essay, Paragraph 4 has the applicant taking on several projects in her recently discovered sub-specialty and excelling in them. Though her paragraph is a very Christmas-y green and red, that doesn’t mean yours can’t have blue and yellow. I think the trend here would be towards green though as it’s a taking action sort of section of the essay.
5. OPTIONAL – At this point, I should mention that I prefer a six paragraph model for grad essays, of 165 words per paragraph. I’m not a stickler about the number of paragraphs though, so it’s totally fine that she put one extra here. It works well, showcasing her ability to overcome challenges in a couple of different social/management settings. Her intended course of graduate study does have an organizational behavior component, so in this case, this paragraph’s inclusion is more than justified. Oftentimes, applicants want to put a hobby/extracurriculars paragraph here. It’s a value judgment. Is the space that it will occupy justified by what it says about you? If your Paragraph five is mostly green, be warned. You’re probably better off cutting it altogether.
6. CROSSROADS – The Crossroads Paragraph will invariably have a lot of blue (oftentimes with zero red). That’s because it is here that you synthesize and make sense of all your previous experiences. You will also come to the same conclusion everyone else does at this point of the essay—more schooling please! It is very common for applicants to start this area by taking inventory of the present state of things—what their current job role is, what their thesis project is, what the current state of their industry is, etc. For undergraduate essays, the professional leanings of this section could be replaced with lessons learned, resolutions of dramatic elements introduced earlier or other types of musings.
7. FUTURE-LOOKING – Forget about past and present and take a look in the ol’ crystal ball. Why X University? What are your future professional plans? How do you plan to implement what you’ve learned through your journey? Again, usually red is absent because this paragraph is hypothetical. It tends to favor blue, but often, there are facts presents, which are green. Like, saying that X University is #1 in a certain area, that’s green. But saying you’d like to do research under Professor Y is blue. If at all possible, end on a yellow note to tie the whole essay together.
Wrapping this up, I want to stress that this methodology is not meant to be copied literally. I hope by providing a visual way to code your essay, you get a better idea of how to balance the various elements a winning admissions essay requires. I’d love to see color-coded versions of some of your essays and see what conclusions can be drawn simply from them. Anatomy of an Admissions Essay is an approach I hope to refine and expand upon, so just take this as phase one. But as phase one’s go, there’s a lot of benefit I think you can get from this. Good luck!