Ira Glass, in his very excellent four-part video series on YouTube (which is 20 minutes well spent) says a great story must have two basic parts: a great story and a great “so what.”
I have to agree.
Below are examples from a mediocre extracurricular essay and a better extracurricular essay, followed by notes on what makes them different, and a quick test to see if your extracurricular essay is mediocre.
Keep in mind the two parts I’ve mentioned:
the story or narrative, which tends to be the first half or two-thirds of the essay, and
the “so what” or insight, which tends to come at the end.
And for the purposes of illustrating this point I’ve decided to focus on the extracurricular activity essay, since most of you are or will be writing one, but the lessons apply for most any essay.
A mediocre extracurricular essay has a story that sounds something like this:
I’ve played tennis since I was in the seventh grade and it has taught me many important lessons of teamwork, leadership and perseverance. It has also taught me about never giving up and about working the hardest in whatever I do.
A mediocre extracurricular essay has a "so what" that sounds something like this:
Being on the tennis team taught me many important lessons such as teamwork, leadership and working hard in whatever I do. I believe tennis has also helped me in my school work since I have achieved straight As in the past two quarters and haven’t given up in school either.
Why I think the story is not so good:
It’s not really a story. It’s a reflection, which I think is best discussed in the conclusion.
Why I think the “so what” is not so good:
1. Because it repeats what’s already been said.
2. Because the “insight” isn’t much of an insight. We could have guessed that those are the things you learned from tennis. Why? Because those are things everyone learns from tennis.
A better extracurricular essay has a story that sounds something like this:
“WHAM!” The ball hit me straight in the nose. I looked down on the court and saw blood. Lots of it.
“Do you need a minute?” the umpire asked me.
“No, I’m okay,” I said, pinching my nose and wiping the blood on my shorts. “Play on.”
“You sure?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” I said. “Let’s do this.”
“Match point,” he announced to the crowd. My opponent tossed the ball up in the air to serve.
A better extracurricular essay has a "so what" or insight that sounds something like this:
Playing tennis has taught me some of the things you might expect--the value of teamwork, discipline, yadda yadda--but it’s also taught me something even more important: knowing my limits. That day when I decided to play through a broken nose I wasn’t being “hardcore,” as I’d thought I was being. I was being stupid.
Why I think the story is better:
Because it’s a story! As a reader I’m wondering. What’s gonna’ happen next? I’m in it. I’m engaged.
Why I think the “so what” is better:
Because the insight is unexpected. When I read the opening I thought the narrator was just being hardcore… but then I realized what the narrator realized: it wasn't hardcore, it was silly. And I sense that the writer really truly learned that lesson that day.
Here’s how to take your essay from “mediocre” to “better” in about 30 minutes:
Look at your essay, identify the values you gained and highlight them in bold.
Ask yourself: are these values predictable? Could someone who hasn’t read my essay, in other words, guess what lessons I learned from this activity without reading it?
Example of predictable value gained from hospital internship: helping others
Example of unpredictable value gained from hospital internship: democracy
Aren’t you more interested in reading about the connection between medicine and democracy than the connection between medicine and helping others?
Example of predictable values for violin: discipline, commitment, hard work
Example of unpredictable values for violin: privacy, risk, personal integrity
Again, isn’t the second set of values already a more interesting essay? (Bonus tip: make sure all your values are clearly different. In example above, how are “discipline, commitment and hard work” different?)
So how do you turn your predictable values into unpredictable ones?
Cut the predictable values, then use your beautiful, infinite imagination to come up with new, unpredictable values. Dig deep. Think about specific moments of difficulty. How’d you work through them? If it feels tangential at first, keep digging; you might strike gold
Why will this only take you 30 minutes?
Because you are smart and original and totally competent.
And because here is a list of values to help you out.
Remember: pick values for which the connection is not immediately obvious.
Click here to read about Four Qualities of an Amazing College Essay.