While working on your essay, there’s an essential aspect to keep in mind. The Reader. That the reader should believe you, that your words and your thoughts should be memorable, these are critical aspects for your college applications. The audience for your essays and SOP’s is the evaluator. His opinion is of singular importance to your admission. This brings us to the implicit question: how can we make the essay more believable? Once the structure of the essay is rock solid and the theme or the heart is in place, how can we further reinforce our point?
A two pronged approach helps to hone our writing. We call it the Head-and-Heart approach.
At the rational/head level (prong one), we use evidence based writing.
At the emotional/heart level (prong two), we employ story-telling techniques to keep the reader engrossed.
Show, don’t tell.
The way to make your SOP more believable is to “show” the reader everything you mean. A favourite guideline amongst all writers including the masters of literature is “Show, don’t tell.” Anton Chekhov is the one who put in writing, saying,
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
This is an example of corroborative evidence, which, simply put, is data used to support your statement. For every point you want to make, there should be something to back it up.
Don’t simply say, “I’m great at computer science”.
Give it a little more context. Show how, by adding: “I joined a coding group online and developed an app.”
Don’t simply say, “I’m good at statistics, I topped college and state levels.”
Show how good you are by sharing an experience. Maybe you “conducted a real life statistical survey about consumerist patterns in the apartment complex.” Did it change the way people sourced their groceries?
Don’t simply say, “I’m passionate about art.”
Maybe back it up with experience. “I was part of the core team that organised the Art Fair in our school. With a footfall in thousands, art exhibits from various schools, and eminent art personalities from the contemporary art scene, our Art Fair was the first to showcase how great art starts at a young age.”
Don’t say, “I love graphic design.”
Share an experience about how maybe you free-lanced. And did it end well? Did it backfire? What did you learn from such an experience of failure? What about success stories?
Evidence for the HEAD aspect comes in many forms. It could be hard evidence in the shape of scores, class rank, percentages. It could be projects executed as part of curricular or extracurricular courses. It could even be an internship, an online course, something published, some logo design you sold.
Letters of Recommendation
The best evidence, for example, for someone applying in the research field, is prior high-quality research that they clearly were centrally involved. Letters of recommendation from faculty that state why their contribution to the research made the difference are also strong.
Expert based insight
Then there is the aspect of expert based insight. Why should the reader believe you? If you say you are interested in the field of say, data sciences, you could share an article that maybe you have published, in a journal, in the school magazine or some kind of project that can be shared. This gives your opinion more credibility. It’s best to share evidence that establishes your level of expertise in the relevant subject.
As long as you have data to back up your claims, the questioning reader is satisfied. The whole aim of this exercise is to demonstrate your keen interest, and to show evidence of how you’ve taken it to a new level. In the end, the evaluator is looking for very, very strong evidence to ensure that the admitted students perform well.
The other aspect of the essay that is critical to making the reader root for you, is the emotional aspect, or the Heart of the essay. For this, here are a few tips and strategies to fine tune your writing:
1.Create a hush
The opening lines of your essay, or SOP, are key to setting the tone. “Create a hush” refers to getting the attention of the reader right at the start. Starting off with a loud list of achievements, adjectives and aspirations all put together like:
I was the best all round student throughout school and have always wanted to start my own firm, and actively give back to the community that has helped my grow.
I’m a very creative, highly motivated, efficient, innovative, analytical, and responsible rocket scientist / business analyst / design student.
This overdose usually has the unintended effect of disbelief (as discussed above, with reference to evidence based writing). Maybe a better approach to gain the attention of the reader is to create silence, not noise. Create a hush. In that silence, you can be as concise, down-to-earth, objective and business-like as you want, minus all the fluff, and you would still have the reader’s attention. How do you get this silence, or the hush?
Use a short sentence with a shockingly grand claim, hyperbole.
The title of one SOP goes:
“4 Billion Dollars in Deals”
You give the reader a second to chew on that, and then furnish the rest of the details and context.
“I was born with dyslexia to deaf and mute parents and never had the confidence to compete with normal students…”
Another short and sweet opening sentence from a student’s SOP is:
“I try harder.”
The reader is intrigued. There seems to be a story in there. Who is trying, what is he trying at? Trying harder implies effort, some failed attempts, self-improvement, and who knows what else! You’ll have to read further to know more.
Or use a contradictory opening sentence. Example: “There is something lasting about defeat.”
Maybe say something unexpected. Completely unexpected in the field. Example: “I am a gamer …”
Or maybe simply just write a simple sentence and put it there. Use punctuation, visual space, to create a hush.
“I am at a crossroad now.
After spending 3 years at XXX going through a transformational academic journey, I have started to understand that businesses are not just built by managerial excellence…..”
Sometimes a visual gap, extra spaces between the opening line and the rest, helps your words to register even better in the reader’s mind. These methods help to cut through the noise and establish some focus in the essay.
2. Make an engaging story
We have discussed some great tips for story-telling techniques, and how to use them in your SOP here. If you weave a story into your SOP, instead of simply making it a list of achievements, it automatically generates interest for the reader. Once you develop the emotional aspect of the essay, it humanises you as the applicant. The evaluator, or the reader, can then relate better as a person with you and it also creates a lasting memory of you as an eligible candidate.
3. Get the reader to root for your character
At the end of the story, in this case, the SOP, the reader should really want your character to win. He should be emotionally invested in the journey of your character and want to help, or offer you an opportunity to grow, to win. Using storytelling techniques
4. Page turning (story arc)
The page-turning characteristic of a thriller that is simply “unputdownable” is the narrative. There is a promise in the beginning. Then the reader is led through a series of twists and turns, towards an ending. Through it all, if your reader finds himself actively wishing for a certain ending, then you know you have succeeded in getting him to root for you.
Don’t make a list: “I have consistently topped my school and class in maths. I also took extra classes for my calculus, as well as statistics topics.”
Make a story of it: I started as a math enthusiast. While consistently excelling in the examinations, I found that I needed to learn more. I participated in quizzes and competitions. For the summer school internships, I interned at XX bank in the risk modelling department to deepen my interest and understanding of the subject. And then i was hooked.”
One thing should lead, inevitably, and progressively, to another.
Between all the story-telling and evidencing, do not forget a few things:
- Check that you are indeed mailing the correct essay to the correct college!
- Check that the essay you have written correctly answers the questions they have asked.
- There’s always a method to the madness. Follow the paragraph method for a solid structure in your SOP.
- If you are sending the same essay to many colleges, remember to change the name of the institute!
- And remember: spell check, good grammar, punctuation, and the oxford comma never killed anyone.