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Essay Tip: Telling the Story

Kay Peterson, Ph.D./FastWeb

What makes a winning essay? Judges respond best to essays that have a clear focus and address the essay question or topic. But even more importantly, winning essays involve the reader. They take the reader along for the ride by telling a story about the applicant.

To demonstrate this, let’s take a look at an essay written by Neil, a FastWeb user. Neil has been asked to write about volunteer work:

“The ability to volunteer within one’s own community is a skill possessed by only a handful of people. Through my experiences, volunteering has shown me not only that it takes a good person to volunteer, but also by volunteering, you can become a much better person.

My maiden voyage was when I was a freshman in high school. A close friend of mine was a member of a committee that planned Rockfest, a drug and alcohol free day-long concert sponsored by the Rockland YM-YWHA. After much convincing, I joined him on what I later found out would be the first of many, many Thursday night meetings. It was here that I met the Rockfest planning advisor, and later on a lady who became a mentor, coordinator for numerous other events, and most importantly a friend. The meeting wasn’t overly crowded, but there was a nice atmosphere about it. No one was paid, no one was there to outdo the next guy, and everyone was there for the same purpose. I looked at it as an opportunity to plan a concert, interview bands and listen to great music; they looked at me as a community volunteer … or could I really be both?

So week after week I attended these Thursday night meetings. I soon began putting in more of my own time: going out on weekends to gather sponsors, interview bands after school, calling magicians, clowns, vendors, etc. As the day of Rockfest grew nearer and nearer, I was getting very excited. I had planned this concert; I had helped out. It’s a feeling like no other, to stand back and look at the 5,000 people of all ages who attended the concert, and know that I helped plan this show. Needless to say, I was back the next year to start the planning again. As time went by, I became involved in other activities where my services were useful. I helped out by delivering food on holidays to nursing homes, and by making baskets filled with candy for places like the ARC and Jawanio. I also helped at my karate school by teaching the children’s classes, an experience from which I have gained so many life skills.

By volunteering in my community, I have learned so much about myself as a person, and about other good people in my community. I feel exceptionally fortunate to be given the opportunity to help out people who are less fortunate than I, and to have been able to plan Rockfest for the past four years, and to have moved up to being one of the most senior members on the board of planners (recently, I was informed that funding was pulled for next years Rockfest; enclosed is a letter that I wrote to the board of trustees defending the show). My volunteering has helped to make so many people happier, even just for that one hour that I played cards with them, or for that one hour that I watched television with them or played chess with them. That is truly an irreplaceable feeling inside."

Neil’s essay has a lot of winning elements, but there’s a lot he can do to create a stronger impression. Here’s what I liked about his essay:

- He uses his essay as a way to highlight and expand upon the experiences that make him a good candidate for this scholarship. - He provides a lot of vivid detail. He gives specific instances and describes exactly what he has done in his community. - He personalizes the essay by providing insights into the way he felt about these projects.

On the other hand, there are some things in his essay that keep us from getting as involved as we could be:

- His opening paragraph is weak and doesn’t carry the same interest as the paragraphs that follow. The ideas are vague and a bit cliche, and do nothing to portray him to his readers. - His description of what he gets out of volunteering—as well as what his volunteerism does for others—is also vague. He loses us because he doesn’t say anything that is unique or drawn directly from his experiences. - He packs in a lot of interesting details—his mentorship relationship with the Rockfest planning advisor, his efforts to maintain funding for Rockfest—but he doesn’t use them effectively. They get lost because his essay isn’t focused.

Neil could easily improve this essay by redrafting it so that it focuses on telling the story of his experience. Neil’s already gotten a start on this in his second paragraph. Here, Neil sets a dramatic scene by providing a description of the setting and characters at the Rockfest planning meeting:

… The meeting wasn’t overly crowded, but there was a nice atmosphere about it. No one was paid, no one was there to outdo the next guy, and everyone was there for the same purpose …

He even lays out a bit of dramatic conflict and fills us in on his own motivation and expectations: “I looked at it as an opportunity to plan a concert, interview bands and listen to great music; they looked at me as a community volunteer … or could I really be both?”

Neil should take full advantage of this dramatic scene by using it as the opening of his essay. He should skip his general description of the importance of volunteerism and jump right into his first visit to a Rockfest planning meeting. By taking this more dramatic approach, he can describe his feelings, his doubts, what he thinks he’ll get out of it, his reason for being there.

Once he’s caught us with that ‘hook,’ he can use the rest of the essay to walk us through the effect this experience has had on his life. Before writing, Neil may want to plan out the various ‘chapters’ of his story by listing for himself the key moments or episodes:

- his mentor relationship with the planning advisor. - what he has learned as he has risen through the ranks from ‘volunteer’ to one of the most senior members of the planning board. - his developing interest in other volunteer projects. - his efforts to save Rockfest from funding cuts.

These are all potentially great stories, but right now, he runs through them so quickly they lose their power.

In particular, Neil should describe more fully his efforts to save Rockfest. He can do this recounting how he heard about the funding cut, how he responded and what he decided to do about it. By adding these details, he’ll illustrate more forcefully how important volunteerism is to him.

If he focuses on telling the story, Neil will bring the reader along for the ride and provide himself with great ammunition for his conclusion. Instead of relying on cliches, he can point to the experiences he’s had—that the reader has shared—to illustrate why volunteerism is valuable. Since we’ve seen where he started and where he ended up, we’ll get a fuller sense of the importance of these events. He will have sold us on his experience—simply by telling the story.


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