Editor’s note: This story was featured as a blog post on Mentorverse, a college-mentor application company. Nelson Ureña is a co-founder of Mentorverse and a former Cornell University admissions officer.
It was a Saturday evening and I was doing my shift opening application envelopes at 320 Pinetree Road in Ithaca, New York. (This was back before all applications had to be submitted electronically through the CommonApp website.)
I opened a rather large envelope and began sorting all the documents contained within the file. Inside I found sealed letters of recommendation, Common App forms, and official transcripts which I sorted and prepared to scan into the system.
I picked up what looked like a 1000 word document, which I identified as this student’s personal statement. It was titled “Heavy Metal.” My first thought was, “This student did not follow the clearly stated 500 words or less directive!”
I prepared to skim through the document and discard it along with the 99 other exceedingly long essays I had read that day, but after the first sentence I was totally hooked.
The essay began with the student opening her eyes to a masked face and latexed hands installing a highly intricate contraption of wire and metal around her mouth and skull.
I was confused, disoriented, and a little disturbed by what I had just read, but I just had to keep reading to learn what the heck was going on in this scene.
The student proceeded to described her world of ballet and its expectations of absolute perfection. Any flaw in physique, appearance, or form resulted in being unfit to pursue the coveted title Prima Ballerina.
During a routine dental check up, a dentist told this aspiring Ballerina that she had a slight misalignment of her lower jaw, a minor imperfection which according to this dentist, not only caused her to have an under bite, and a slightly asymmetrical smile, but it also affected the alignment of her vertebrae which caused an imbalance to rest of her posture just noticeable enough to prevent her from the perfection she sought.
The dentist convinced this young lady that she needed what this writer described as a contraption of wire and heavy metal that attached to her teeth and surrounded her skull. She had to wear and adjust this heavy metal for a few weeks in an attempt to correct her misalignment.
After completing the prescribed regimen of heavy metal and adjustments, the student had the contraption removed and instead of correcting her posture, it caused her to develop what is known as TMJ (Temporomandibular Joint Disorder).
Now she has an audible click in her jaw every time she opens her mouth wide and sometimes a throbbing pain in her jaw. These events lead the student to abandon ballet and helped her come to the realisation that perfection is overrated.
Here is an example of how a topic which could have easily been labelled cliche and did not follow directions, had all the necessary components to capture this reader’s attention.
This particular essay polarised the admissions committee as some cited that though compelling, it was too long and did not follow directions. Others cited that although it was long it was captivating and helped us learn about this student.
It created the sort of dialogue among the admissions committees that works in a student’s favour. This student took a risk, which may not always work, but she was brave enough and clever enough to break the rules and deliver excellent quality.
I don’t think exceeding the word limit is a particularly good approach to the Personal Statement (today it is impossible as the Common App limits Personal Statements to 650 words), but this essay provides the insight that no topic is cliche, and that sometimes decidedly taking risks can work in your favour as a writer.
Here are some actionable lessons from this essay which you can implement in your own writing as you comb through life events in search of your own heavy metal:
Disorient: Your very first sentence needs to shock and awaken your readers as they sit at their desks reading hundreds of essays which have bored them half asleep. Confuse your reader or otherwise cause discomfort in the beginning so that they have to read more to find out what on earth is going on.
Paint a picture: Be so descriptive that the reader can see you sitting in that metaphorical dentist’s chair.
Hyperbolize, use metaphors, be active!
Silver Lining: Your story needs to convey an underlying observation, something you have learned or gained from your experience and how it has changed your life.
Imply: Don’t just give away your Silver Lining; make your reader analyse and steer them toward your message using your story as a vehicle. Cliché is (s)he who states “failure is the mother of all success;” clever is (s)he who tells a story that helps the reader come to this phrase.
Take Risks: Following the rules is important in the application process but once in a while it can be to your advantage to decidedly break from some writing conventions and express your thoughts in a truly unique way. Make sure that you have a compelling reason for breaking conventions and that doing so will convey a message which you could not otherwise express.
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