How Not to Write a College Admissions Essay (Part 2)

Last week I gave some insight into college admissions essay writing. As I mentioned there (and reiterate here) a critical piece of advice is to avoid the temptation of modeling. While it’s often hard to resist the style and language of a composition we enjoy, finding a unique voice is imperative. The reason being, a writer’s voice is their most vital asset and defining feature. Mimicry is inevitable (even for the pros) yet there’s a fine line between emulation and triteness.

For this reason, I’m quite hesitant to post the following excerpt from my own medical school admissions essay (circa 2007). For one, it’s not very good, and secondly, I’m not sure that it’ll achieve much in the way of creative inspiration. The story I’ve told in this piece is entirely my own. To mirror the substance would be disingenuous, and therefore, the only mimicable aspect would be style (which I also don’t believe is very good).

Looking back, ten years later, there are many parts of this essay which are downright cringe-worthy. The opening paragraph has a sound message, yet is far too blunt. It is a great example of why showing the reader something is far more poignant than telling them about it. I vividly remember the creative muse which struck me in a half-woke state commanding me to pursue this idea of realizing watershed moments in real time. I hurriedly threw open my computer and frantically typed away, afraid that the muse could escape me at any moment. I was so convinced that the opening paragraph was the work of divine intervention that I could never bare to change it. What you see below, is quite literally an unedited first draft of an opening paragraph which should have been murdered and thrown down a well. When in doubt, obey the Faulkner maxim, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

The second paragraph is even worse. Reading it now, drives me under the nearest bed-frame with my eyes covered. The reason being, this passage could easily be spliced into any medical school applicant’s personal statement, and no one would bat an eye. Be advised, nothing about your personal statement should be impersonal. Unfortunately, I missed the memo. Many parts of the second paragraph are utterly laughable. The cardinal sin was approaching a shallow question (Why do you want to become a phyisician?) with a list of one-dimensional answers with no story to back them up. This paragraph should have also been brutally murdered.

As for the third passage—it’s a cliché-filled monologue which serves little-to-no purpose. The only thing to be gleaned is that the writer is an amateur runner with an appetite for obvious metaphors who may or may not live in a hilly neighborhood. In my defense, I believe the idea was there, yet the delivery was god-awful. Let this be a life-lesson: no matter how strong your message, delivery is everything.

So now, without further ado, enjoy this opening excerpt, but please, do not try this at home.

There are moments we look back on and think; “My life was different after that.” Those who have the hindsight to realize these moments are truly fortunate. As for me, I was lucky enough to realize my life was changing while caught in the exact moment in which it occurred. It’s only happened to me once, and will probably never happen again, but it will stay with me for the rest of my life.

I don’t want to become just a doctor. For me, “doctor” only identifies rather than describes who a person is. I want to be more. I want to travel to Africa and see what it means to be poor and sick. I want to be called into an E.R. at 3 a.m. to help save a dying man’s life. I want to know more about one small field of research than anyone else in the world. I want to teach what I have learned to both a graduate student and a 12 year old. When I die I want to know that my life was extraordinary. I want to know that I helped change things and that I didn’t allow things to change me. In short, I want to be the best at what I do.

Being the best requires that one first understand what it means to be the worst. Without failure, a person only has his successes to learn from. Unfortunately, success is only the downhill. If there’s anything I’ve learned from running it’s that to appreciate the downhill you must first experience the pain that goes into climbing the uphill. In my time as a student I’ve experienced both. Yet I can easily say I’ve learned more from my failures than my successes.

Let’s leave it there for now. Anything more might be considered insulting to the English language. Next week, I’ll discuss the second half of this piece, which I believe is much stronger.


Featured image by Petar Milošević

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