Friday, July 6, 2012

College Essay AIMS: The A stands for...

Right now a senior is sitting across from me at Barnes and Noble.  He's slaving away at a draft of a short essay for college applications due in the fall.

Before he started writing, I laid out the essay writing objectives for him in the form of an acronym - AIMS.

The A stands for "Aim for Story within Story."

As human beings, we easily leak out of our brains propositional centric prose.  Abstractions simply don't stick.  Stories, however, work like Velcro.  They stick to our brains.

My father is a pastor.  And to this day I can't tell you what one of his "3 points" were from any of his thousand of sermons I heard.  But I can recall story upon story that he would tell to illustrate ideas like grace and mercy and the love of God.

Do this little experiment next time your in a Starbucks.

Just stop and listen to the conversations going on around you.

You'll probably discover that 9 out of 10 conversations have a narrative shape.

 People telling each other stories.  Their stories.

Stories are ultimately about master events.

They are moments where something happens.

Some times this "something" happens within the character.  Like a revelation.  Or love.

Other times this "something" happens outside the character.  Like a rain storm.  Or holding hands.

And other times this "something" happens both within and outside the character.

But because the college application now limits students to 50 characters, 500 characters,  1000 characters, 250-500 words, one can't really tell a whole story.

One college admission officer confided in me that he spends approximately 2 minutes reading through a student's personal essay.

That's just the rub in an age of application proliferation thanks to the Common Application.

Application volume has just become crushing for college reps.

So within this new reality, it's important for a student to tell a story within a story.

Let me illustrate with one of my student's activities essays.

He told a story about his 1st job.

But notice he doesn't narrate his whole 1st job experience.

When I first walked in to the Lopez Foods meat plant, my 15 year old mind didn't know what to expect. I was thinking I could maybe sample a famous McDouble off the conveyor belt or maybe pitch a Happy Meal idea to an employee. However, this wasn't the case. My first assignment involved working 8 hours in an isolated, metallic room apart from the main meat grinders and conveyers, where every labored, chilled breath produced an icy cobweb. In 40 degree temperatures, decked out in hair net, hard hat, and frock, my co- worker and I sorted through raw beef chunks for any "foreign objects". With my heavily gloved hands and a large metal pitchfork, I discovered all sorts of delicious goodies: from strands of hair and chips of bone, to my lottery winning favorite object - a cow lung. Three years later, I still love to ask new employees if they have discovered a jewel more dazzling than a respiratory body part in their messy excavation of the raw beef.

Whether it is in a story about a job.  Or a trip.  Or a big game.  Or a challenging class.

Your goal is to find the story within the story.

To peel away the outer narrative ring and focus on that inner narrative ring that represents a central event within a master event.