Your admission essay or personal statement is your chance to let your personality shine through, to tell the story your grades and test scores never could. Why? Because just like Buffy was more than a vampire slayer, you’re more than a face in the crowd.
I was surprised when I learned that we would be discussing Buffy the Vampire Slayer in class and that there was actually a course dedicated to it at my alma mater, Emerson College. Perhaps I was surprised because the character was still so recent and attached to my adolescence, not from some older literary work.
But then, the depths and layers of Buffy led me to thinking about another strong female lead: Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman, as it turns out, helped me get into college.
Yes, Wonder Woman, the Amazon Demigod. Princess Diana of Themyscira. Part of the Justice League, portrayed by Lynda Carter in the 1970s.
I dressed up as Wonder Woman for Halloween my senior year of high school. One of my friends went as Hawkgirl (who deserves way more attention than she gets, come on now). Our costumes were homemade, nerdy, and pretty awesome.
Since I prepare for Halloween months in advance (no apologies here—it’s my favorite), I was in Justice League mode when writing my college essays for early application. That’s when I decided to write my application essay about Wonder Woman: how I saw some of myself in her, yet how we were different. I don’t even remember what I wrote my other essays about. She’s the one that stands out to me . . . maybe because I went out on a limb or maybe because it was the essay for the school I ended up attending. Either way, she and Buffy are powerful examples of characters we can relate to, who stand as metaphors to situations and personal struggles.
Personal struggles? In a college application essay? Of course! Your college essay needs to speak volumes past the regular who, what, when, where, and why. Tailoring your essay to your major and highlighting your personality is key.
"Writing as a metaphor is a really great thing," says Elisabeth Williams, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at University of New Hampshire. She also adds that proofreading and sharing different perspectives are vital components of a college essay that are often overlooked.
What is the main item students tend to miss when writing college essays? “Topic wise, I would say that students don’t always tell us more about themselves,” says Williams. “That’s what I want to know, who you are.”
Has any one story stuck in her mind to this day? “Oh, definitely. I think students who approach it and sort of write it from a different perspective . . . one example was a student who compared her life to double-sided sticky tape.” Williams explains that the student wanted to influence other people and vice versa, to stick to them and be impacted by them as well. "Writing as a metaphor is a really great thing."
Another essay example she brings up pointed out the importance of styling your essay to your major. The student was going into a performing arts major and wrote the essay as a script of a play, included lighting, music, and more.
When I asked fellow Emerson alums what they wrote about for their college essays, the answers were crazy and varied in the best possible way: writing as a sales pitch with their mind as the product, writing about their first video project, Pixar, Halo 3, their first memory, pears, Star Wars, failing a road test, comparing themselves to a princess, the “Carol Never Wore Her Safety Goggles, Now She Doesn't Need Them Anymore” poster, and more. Every story they told me was creative and intriguing, and, most importantly, I truly wanted to read more.
One recent Emerson graduate I talked to, Erin Doolin, works as a production assistant in reality television. “My college essay was about how when I was little, right after I learned how to read/write, I used to spend my summers laying on my belly in the little strips of forest in between my house and my neighbors houses with my ‘spy equipment,’” she says. “I loved pretending I was Harriet the Spy—my obvious idol. Anyway, at the time I wrote the essay, I was applying to be a journalism major. And now, five years later, I work in reality television. I guess I can still see the connection between my weird behavior as a little kid and my current career path.”
Examples like this show details about your past experiences impacting your future career as a student and beyond.
I decided to check in with another resource. Karen A. Williams is the current Director of Admissions at Eugene Lang College, part of the New School in New York City. Is there a repeated, common mistake students make in college essays? “I find that these topics are definitely most telling about a student's maturity and how they think, how they analyze problems, how they solve problems . . . basically lessons learned and how they plan to apply those lessons to the rigors of academic life in college,” she says. “Most of these questions can be assessed the same way . . . how open the student is in their thinking.”
Williams adds that, political and philosophical thinking aside, schools like to see how diverse a student is in his or her approach to ideas. “Especially in a liberal arts setting, it is important in a seminar style for students to be able to hear opinions and hear things that are different from how they actually think . . . to help people think differently or open to a different opinion and interpretation of text,” Williams says. In short, essays give admission representatives an idea of how open and receptive students are.
Maybe you’re afraid that your personal story is too risky, and you don’t want to divulge that story, milestone, or challenge. Don’t be, Williams says, "Take a chance, answer the question, and be honest."