A lot of things have been automated in this world, from manufacturing cars to growing potatoes. But there’s one thing where computers do not replace human beings: university admission. The admission process is not as simple as checking your grades and see if they meet the minimum mark. There are subjective elements to it, as there’s always a pair of human eyes that read an application. Most of its attention would be spent on reading arguably the most interesting part: your application essays.
The Big Picture
All the universities in Singapore require applicants to write an essay in response to a question. The questions usually fall into one of the two categories: your personal experiences and your motivation of applying. Between these two, the first type is much more popular. In fact, the second type of questions is really the first type in disguise, as a good reason for applying to a university is definitely based on some personal experiences.
Brainstorm for a topic: How to make the first step?
Digital Senior guesses that your first obstacle, and probably the biggest of all, is actually to think about a topic to write on. “An experience that is meaningful to you.” There seem to be so many of them. “A person who has had significant influence on you.” Well, you can probably think of more than one, or probably none! How to begin the very first step?
Very simple, ignore all the questions. Yes, just ignore all of them. Essentially they are asking one single question: what is an experience that has a lot of impact on you in any way. With the new question in mind, think of your experiences in the past that you find have had impact on you.
Though your less than twenty years of existence in this world is not a long time, but it’s long enough for many interesting things to happen and also for you to forget about them. You need to dig them out.
Reflections, Anywhere, Anytime
The first method is to set aside 15 min everyday, doing nothing but reflect on your past. Search your memories for any lesson learnt, mistake made or inspiration found. Write them down before they disappear again. It’s also advisable for you to create an electronic document in your phone for essay ideas, as you may just think of a good idea while you are on the bus, walking or even in the toilet. You don’t want to miss any potential idea.
“What do you think of me, mummy?”
The second method is to ask people around you. Start with your parents. Ask them if they remember any noteworthy story about you. Also ask your friends for their impression of your, and if there’s anything in particular they know you of. Encourage them to be specific by asking them for examples. A generic word ‘honesty’ doesn’t say much about who you are.
Let the memories flash back
The third method is to look at objects or materials that are relevant to you. Browse through your photos to see if there’s any story to tell out of them. Go back to your secondary teachers recommendation or your CCA record to see if there’s any inspiration. If you ever keep a journal, fantastic! Now you have a treasure trove of good ideas.
How to write a great story?
Now you know how to brainstorm a topic, you need to go ahead and expand that into an essay. If you only remember one thing about what Digital Senior tells you, it would be this: always write a story. A good application essay is a good story. A good applicant is a good story teller.
And don’t write a long story. An essay is not your autobiography where you recount the happenings in your life. It is a snapshot in a particular stage of your life, usually one single story. Hence keep your essay short and sweet, perhaps within 400 words.
Since it is a story, it must have the basic structure of a story. It should have an introduction and a crisis or conflict. Use dialogues. It then ends off with a resolution in which you as the protagonist in the story ‘save the world’. Okay, maybe not that heroic, but the idea is that all stories have a happy ending with you overcoming an obstacle. It illustrates your virtue(s) in a subtle and non-promotional way. Don’t write a discursive essay, especially for topic that sounds more formal, like ‘why you apply to this course’. Always tell a story to support your claim. Writing ‘firstly, secondly, thirdly’ would quickly drive the readers to sleep.
Be Genuine, Be Interesting
And we also notice the tendency of some students of trying very hard to impress. He becomes a perfect human being: a good leader who solves all the crises, or a good son who always cares about his parents. Most of us won’t be that perfect, and some of the best essays are about the embarrassing errors, stupid blunders and harsh criticism. But they stand out.
They stand out because they are both genuine and interesting. There is no hard science to determine why readers can tell if a piece of writing is genuine. Probably by the choice of words or by the amount of emotion readers feel that the author has put in. Since there is no formula for being genuine, it is best to just be genuine.
And don’t misunderstand what we mean by interesting. Your story must be interesting to your admission officers. If you have traveled to the moon before, great adventure! But if your takeaway is only those beautiful pictures, you will be better off not to talk about your outer space journey. In fact, admission officers are looking for qualities that are very ‘uninteresting’. Such qualities may just be integrity, leadership, teamwork, entrepreneurship and more. Nothing fancy. But they expect you to tell a good story on how you experienced or developed such qualities. Hence they are expecting you to be interesting in the way you communicate an idea that is already widely known.
Writing essays can be fun. It is a process of knowing yourself better. You can be surprised by how much you have grown or changed over the years. You will understand how things that happened in the past may all contribute to who you are today. Or as Steve Jobs said, ‘all dots are connected.’ So go connect your dots.