Over at Gurufi.com., we’re putting together a short series of videos on how you can use effective storytelling techniques to make your personal statement more engaging. We decided to create this series in order to combat what is the most prevalent problem that I encounter when helping people organize, write, and revise their personal statements: bland essays that feel like narrative versions of the author’s CV.
Many people resort to this style of writing because they either don’t understand what makes for a compelling essay or they’re convinced that they don’t know how to write a good story. To the first point, what I can tell you after having read literally thousands of admissions essays is that the best essays are essays that tell a story. Rather than looking to recount lots of small achievements, they go into depth on just a few (or even one) really important transformative moment. These sorts of stories, when properly deployed, can clarify your positioning as an applicant and make you memorable in a way that a list of accomplishments simply cannot.
So how do you write a compelling story? Well, there are many aspects to this, which our video series will cover, but over the next few weeks, I’ll be describing some of the most important tips and tricks. Today, I’ll start with the most important one: have a good villain. Now, let me be clear about what I’m describing. I’m not telling you to describe a terrible person in your essay, but rather I want you to think about what makes any adventure story or movie good: you have to believe that the good guy might fail. You create stakes by making the obstacle immense, and thus when the hero surmounts it, they show their qualities of strength, guile, intellect, resilience, and maturity.
To use an example, think about the recent two-part “Avengers” movie. In the first part, the villain, Thanos, had to seem invincible, and the audience had to believe that their heroes couldn’t possibly beat him. He was too strong, too smart, and was always two moves ahead of them. Then, when in the second part, the heroes managed to beat him, their story was much more interesting and engaging and the audience was left with far more awe and respect for the heroes.
So how does this apply to writing a personal statement? Far too often, applicants will write about their accomplishments without fully explaining what made those accomplishments so impressive. Take the following examples:
“I led a $15 million purchase of Company A.”
“I spent a month working with HIV orphans in Tanzania.”
“I volunteered for 18 months with a legal aid non-profit.”
If this is all you write, these would be nice additions to your application, but they wouldn’t be fantastic home runs. What these applicants need to do is ask some follow-up questions: 1) why was this work so challenging? 2) What was my hardest day on the job? 3) What was the biggest challenge I faced doing this work? 4) What was the closest I ever came to failing? 5) Why? The applicant could then use these answers to these questions to tell their story in a fuller and more interesting way. For instance:
“I led a $15 million purchase of Company A.”
You can flesh this out by adding some vital points that make clear how hard this was to achieve, such as:
->The deal nearly collapsed because of miscommunication
→ With a midnight deadline looming, I gathered the conflicting parties on a teleconference and worked through each of the sticking points
→ The CEO of the target company refused to budge, and the deal looked dead until I flew to Cincinnati and convinced him to have lunch with me. My coming to his home office established trust, and this laid the foundation for fruitful dialogue that let us complete a win-win deal.
These details, when added thoughtfully into the essay, will make the experience pop off the page in a way that merely describing the end accomplishment could never do.
By going through this process of really focusing on the most difficult and dire moments, you make your contributions stand out and the story becomes both more memorable and a more powerful expression of your strengths as an applicant. The reason is that the reader can feel the difficulty of this situation and recognizes that, but for your efforts, this deal might have failed.
For this reason, I often urge clients never to focus only on the accomplishment. If you feature an accomplishment in an essay, you should first try to make clear why the accomplishment was such a big deal. Your story needs “a villain” to really allow the hero to shine. This “villain” is almost never an actual person / opponent, but rather a set of tough circumstances and unexpected occurrences that you had to overcome, solve, or work around.
Every year, Gurufi.com helps hundreds of applicants get into the school of their dreams. Last year alone, Gurufi clients earned admission into the top business schools in America and around the world, including: Oxford Said, Wharton, Kellogg, Yale School of Management, Harvard Business School, NYU Stern, MIT Sloan, Booth, U Michigan Ross, and Cal Berkeley Haas, to name but a few. For help, visit Gurufi.com or contact them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org