The Power of Detail in the College Essay: A Personal Story in 485 words

Why did you have children, if all you’re going to do is work?!” said my six-year-old daughter in the trademark singsong sound that can only be uttered from a child’s lips.  This, after only 14 days trying in earnest to start marketing myself as a college essay coach.  Dear lord, I thought, please let me finish this train of thought in peace.  Alas, the train was leaving the station.  I shut my computer down and offered to sit by the stereo and “rock out” with her and my 3-year old son.

My daughter proffered another insight earlier this year after I woke her warm body from her cozy bed and rushed her through breakfast.  I said “Soph, come on, you’re torturing me here, eat your breakfast!” To which she replied emphatically and with total composure, “Mom, I’m not torturing you, you’re torturing yourself.” Truer words were never spoken.   In that instant she gave me permission to accept reality, and release the tension I had built up in my gut.  I began laughing in staccato, it sounded like air being squeezed out of an over-inflated balloon.  Then I cleared her plate.  Some power truth has, huh?

They say god is in the details, and I believe it’s true. Everything we remember as having happened has images, language and sensory perceptions attached that invite the reader to have an experience that can bring our stories to life.  It’s not just for ourselves that we tell our personal stories, we tell them to have other people know us, to reflect us back to ourselves, and to have the reader see her reflection in us.

It’s the same with the college essay.  Last week I had the privilege of working with a student who, while probing into a free-write he’d just written, was surprised to recall how similar he and his mother were, even down to the “broad arc of her eyebrows,” and that “her hair was brown with golden light, just like mine.”  While lying in bed with his mother after a long night without their father at home, anticipation built as “the front door opened, but no one came inside; then padded in a puppy.”  Tenderness, love, anxious curiosity, surprise ­­­­– all these emotions were invoked in me, the listener/reader. In those vivid details, I’ve learned a little about him and what he values.  This moment captures one of many hardships for this young man and also evokes his love of animals that cultivated his interest in veterinary medicine.

Without the detail he unearthed, the story might become generic, boring even, no matter how well intentioned the writer. Being honest and using precision to open a small window into your life is how you create a powerful personal essay.  Any student can do it, grade point average is not a determining factor.  If it’s true that god is in the details, then surely she is on your side.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *