Some say that the college application essay is formulaic. If that were to be true, the stereotypical formula would go like this: Typical high school experience + dramatic interpretation attempting to raise the stakes + a grand takeaway that is often along the lines of “and then I realized that life has meaning beyond becoming homecoming queen!”
That would be the formula if there were a formula. We reject that formula, which is how we know that it isn’t the key to admission. If anything, it’s a key to having your application flagged as being that of someone who takes themselves too seriously.
Rejecting the formula isn’t as easy as just saying “we don’t do that,” though. You have to replace it with something else.
To start, an essay that broke every rule: a screenplay. Yes, a screenplay.
For this student, we knew that they needed to do something to make their application stand out. Often the impulse when people hear “interesting” is an attempt to find something “BIG” to write about. But the average high school student hasn’t dealt with many genuinely BIG things in their short lives, so trying to find something genuinely enormous can blow up in your face.
But “interesting” and “big” aren’t synonyms. Actually, what we’ve learned (and what we teach) is that the most fascinating pieces of writing come from the small things — the daily, everyday, seemingly boring things that, when examined in precise detail, become absolutely fascinating.
The key is form. The style of the essay, and the way it is formatted. We forget that reading is a visual act, which means that it’s about more than just the words that are on the page. There is a relationship between the reader and what the piece actually looks like, just like how the card stock or sheen of a business card changes the way it feels in your hand, impacting your reception and memory of it.
Getting back to this particular essay, we decided to write a small, dinnertime conversation, as a screenplay. Formatted like a screenplay. Filming notes and everything.
To prepare for writing it, we assigned the writer a few screenplays to read, as well as some remarkably fascinating videos about the role of dinnertime scenes in movies. We even got to learn some things in the process.
The ability to use the essay-writing process as a true learning opportunity that goes beyond the 650 words added value to the experience for the student. She may never want to write a screenplay in the future, but she now has a deeper understanding of something she only knew the vaguest outline of.
She also gained confidence in her ability to tackle something that is completely different from what her friends at school were writing. It was scary, but it reinforced that doing things differently is worth it.
Here is the intro to the piece, which exemplifies so much of what we teach, even if we don’t normally take the screenplay route. It is focused, it is intimate, it is small, it is narrative, and it isn’t trying to be something it isn’t. It’s the perfect college essay, and an essay you’d never expect.
EXT. MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS - EARLY EVENING
We see MARY and her MOM walk through the gates of Columbia campus. The two walk together absorbed in a conversation that isolates them from the bustling college students.
INT. [name redacted] APARTMENT
The two arrive and climb the stairs of their walk-up apartment, nestled in the upper edge of Morningside Heights. Mary’s DAD is the first to greet them at the door.
DAD:(yelling out from the kitchen) Welcome home! Dinner’s almost ready.