All selective schools and and nearly all scholarships have more qualified candidates than they have admissions slots and available funds. Whatever school you apply to and scholarship you apply for, there will be a list of basic “qualifier” stats. Even if you are far exceeding the minimum qualifications, expect that other candidates are as well. To beat the odds, you need to stand out. For example, all 4.0 GPAs look the same on paper, so there really is no value in dwelling on raw stats like that. What you need is a story that makes you come to life and be memorable!
Here is my step-by-step guide to crafting and telling your story. It can be used to draft your story for a formal application essay, or for an interview.
- Brainstorm. Write your name in the center of a piece of paper. Now, list out some words that you or others might use to categorize you and put each word in its own bubble extending from the center. Try to cover as many aspects of your life as possible. Here are some examples: nerd; jock; musician; rich, poor or middle-class; trendy, race, sex and/or gender; city-boy; country-girl; religious; non-religious; single-parent home; suburban kid; inner city kid; writer; artsy; nationality or place of origin; etc. Be sure to think about these categories from the perspective of many different types of people. For example, your parents might categorize you differently than your friends or people from different parts of the country or world.
- Understand Why. Now think about the things that would make different people categorize you in those ways. Under each category bubble, list the reasons you fit the category. For example, for “jock” you might list “softball team defensive MVP.” Remember most people won’t know all the different categories to which you can fit.
- Find Your Peculiarity. Look at all your categories and why you fit into them. Do any categories seem to not fit neatly with others? Would anyone be surprised you fit into one category if you were already in another? Focus on the categories you fit that seem most at odds with each other. For example, maybe you are a middle-class suburban kid who is an offensive lineman on the football team and sings in glee club. In this scenario, being white, middle-class and suburban isn’t that interesting. However, an offensive lineman who sings, or a singer who decided to go out for the football team? That’s pretty interesting. Any category you fit is potentially interesting or potentially uninteresting depending on the other categories you fit, so list as many as possible to start out!
- Develop Your Peculiarity. Optimally, your story should challenge expectations about you. So, think about how people would expect you to act based on each of your categories. Pay special attention to the categories that stood out before and jot down some quick examples. Can you think of any ways you only partially fulfill expectations in that category? Can you think of ways you have behaved totally different than someone would expect? Can you think of reasons why people would not expect you to fit into a certain category? For example, imagine your family grew up enjoying cricket and soccer before immigrating from India to a middle-class suburban area. If your family was shocked that you played football, that’s interesting!
- Find Examples of Your Peculiarity. Think of specific times or turning points in time when you have behaved in a way that was contrary to what someone would expect from someone in said category. Jot down those examples.
- Rough Draft. Don’t wait; immediately start drafting a narrative. In your backstory, describe all the reasons someone would expect you to be a certain way (in a certain category) and ways in which you are that way. Explain how you fit a second category that wouldn’t be expected from someone in the first category, or how you don’t fit a second category that would be expected from someone in the first category. Write out some examples in a narrative format.
- The Lesson. Now ask yourself what you learned from this. How did it impact you? How did it make you who you are? Did it influence your goals for the future? What was the culminating event and what accomplishment came with it? Did it bring you to a totally different path than expected, or did your journey come “full-circle” in a way that led you back to something? Add the answers to these questions to your draft.
- What You Want. Jot down what you want at the end of the draft. You want to attend a certain school, pursue a certain degree or profession, work with a certain group of people, etc.
- Tie it Together. By now, your story should be apparent; it has an interesting twist and leads you to a certain lesson. Explain how that lesson has led you to your goal.
- The Elevator Pitch. Once you’ve written out and edited your story, see if you can condense it to a short paragraph. Think of movie or book summaries you’ve read. This is very important, as you may need to tell your story several times throughout the process. You can even incorporate this summary into the beginning or end of your essay. Summaries like this help your story stick in the mind of the reader.
Nobody will remember your “qualifier” stats, but they will remember your story! Your essay readers and interviewers are going to be humans. Humans love stories — especially stories with surprises!
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