The special sauce

Getting those college applications to rise to the top of the pile

Students and parents are always asking: what’s the secret ingredient, that special sauce, that will allow a college application to rise to the top of the pile?

The assumption behind the question is that colleges want to hear certain things.

While it’s true that applications are designed to elicit the basics—grades, scores, activities, focus, an explanation for something that may have gone sideways, and more—the personal essay is another matter altogether. There is no special sauce here. Admission committees don’t want to hear certain things—they want to hear real things. They want to hear you. Your voice. Your heart. Your mind.

Why? They want to know you before they bet on you—and you have some 650 words to accomplish this feat.

So, how do you do this? Tell a story.

But choose carefully. No one cares where you went on vacation or how you won that math competition. Accounts of how you built a Habitat house or taught English over the summer in Nepal or slaved away in a research lab are just too common to hold interest. What we crave as readers—admissions people included—is a good story well told, something we haven’t heard before that allows us to glimpse something real, something that moves us and makes us think.

A good story says something about you—it has a point of view, a tone, a beginning, middle and an end, and is well executed with pristine language. A good story flows without a hitch like a silk scarf in the hand. Each sentence pulls you on. Each paragraph adds something. The beginning is riveting, the ending satisfying. Days later, you are still thinking about it. You mention it to some friends. You don’t remember it word for word, but you sure can recall how it made you feel. If it’s still on your mind a month later, a year later, it was a very good story indeed.

I can tell you all day what a good story contains, but you won’t remember it. What you’ll remember is an example—subtle, powerful—like this one:

A student, an immigrant, wrote about her father’s search for a job and how he was turned down rather summarily by a man she called “Joe.” She went on to talk about all the “Joes” her family had come across as they tried to assimilate, people who looked at her family and thought: uneducated, poor, illegal. She spoke about the Joe who assumed that they were shoplifting, the one who presumed they were the hired help, the one who spoke loudly and slowly on the assumption that she didn’t understand English. She never once used the word “discrimination.” Instead, her essay was about how she managed that sense of being made to feel “less than” and how it forged in her a resolve to succeed. She never once said “I’ll show them,” but that’s exactly what she did.

A reader would have a hard time shaking that notion of all the ignorant, arrogant “Joes” in world, the damage they do, and how it toughened her spirit, straightened her spine, and here she was, applying to an Ivy. She got in.

A mere 650 words, and we know who she is and we are rooting for her. We know she can write. We know she is observant, resourceful and tough. We know she’s going to seize her college opportunities fully and upon graduation make something of her life and make her alma mater proud.

That’s the kind of story I want to see you write. That’s the kind of story I want to read. Don’t go looking for some secret sauce. Instead, look within. What’s the story that has made you who you are? What’s the story you can’t stop talking about—or the one you never dared to speak aloud? What’s the secret wish, or the deeply held belief, or the point of vulnerability, or the dumb luck that has shaped you? Write that—and your application will definitely stand apart. Guaranteed.

Need help? Be in touch!

Denise Shekerjian is an award-winning writer, lawyer and essay coach. For information on her consulting service, including one-on-one private instruction for college and graduate admission, visit Soul of a Word.