How Not to Write a College Admissions Essay (Part 3)

Thus far we’ve established that an honest story is vital to any great admissions essay. Just as a bad story can hurt one’s prose, the absence of a story altogether is equally fatal. In Part 2 of this series we dissected a perfect example of why delivering a strong message requires a strong story. Without a narrative, your message will (at worst) be forgotten or (at best) be cliché.

While the second half of my own admissions essay is hardly remarkable, it shows a stronger effort in the way of storytelling. These excerpts are deeply personal, and therefore, incapable of being duplicated. They are also honest in ways that put trust in the reader, as if a secret has been revealed. This should not be undervalued. When it comes to the college admissions essay, most are hesitant to divulge failures—I mean real failures. This is a mistake. Divulging your abominable failures to perfect strangers is a great way to build trust with your reader. It’s also a lot more entertaining. If you don’t believe me:

“Let me tell you about the time I was arrested….”

“Let me tell you about the time I was awarded…”

Which story would you rather read? The point is, when it comes to a compelling narrative, honesty is the best policy. And if you’re saying to yourself, “But I don’t have any interesting failures” keep looking.

Now, for your viewing pleasure, a final excerpt, far from perfect, and still cringe-worthy.

For a long time, I wanted to become a doctor for all the wrong reasons. As a child, I’d savor the opportunity to show off a white coat and stethoscope to other kids dressed up as ghosts and vampires for Halloween. As a teenager and young adult, I relished in telling people I wanted to become a doctor and seeing their impressed reactions. As a college student, I loved saying I wanted to go to medical school after graduation. My pleasure came from knowing that many of my peers hadn’t a clue of what they wanted to do and I did. For a long time, I wanted to become a doctor because it looked and sounded good. It wasn’t until recently that I was able to rid myself of this arrogance and realize the truth to why practicing medicine is what I should be doing.

I recently visited a nursing home to see a friend who just had both his legs amputated. Frank was nearly 80 years old and the last time I saw him we were discussing why major league baseball was a complete joke. As I made my way down the hall to his room, the smell of excrement and urine was astonishing. I spotted Frank and soon recognized he wasn’t the same person I remembered. This place had changed him.

“How’ve ya been Frank?”

“Can’t complain,” he said, and I was surprised to see him so satisfied with his condition.

“How are the people around here? You get along with everybody?”

“Well…everyb ody’s sort of in their own world”

“Aren’t we all?” I said

“I suppose Ed. But these people are different.”

It hurt me to hear he’d forgotten my name but I ignored it and accompanied him to the lounge, which looked more like a funeral home with a TV set. We sat together for over an hour, not saying much, and I left thinking my visit was not all that special to the old man. As we left, his wife told me that my visit made Frank “forget he was dying.” I was stunned by the statement and realized how little it takes to make a difference in someone’s life—even for an hour.

As a doctor, I want to connect with people. I want to interact with people at their most vulnerable. I don’t want to just offer prescriptions; I want to offer counsel and hope. This is the true beauty of medicine, and I’m just beginning to recognize it. I no longer care about the white coats, and scrubs, and beepers, and “oos” and “ahs.” I’m conditioning myself to recognize the real importance of this field…people.

The moment that changed me, however, was different and happened long before I ever met Frank or his wife. It was the summer before my junior year of college and I had just enrolled at a new university. I found myself sitting in an advisor’s office waiting to hear the inevitable. My transcripts lying loose in his hand, he perused through the courses and grades that seemed to haunt me for the last two years. I glanced up to see him give a large exhale through bulging cheeks. This wasn’t going to be good…

“Based on this, I see no way of you ever getting into medical school”

I felt like I was in a movie. The words, the delivery, the setting, they were all so perfect. I was the main character and my advisor had just foreshadowed the ending. It was at that instant I knew I would one day become a doctor.

I believe everything that happens over the course of my life was written down long before I came. And though we don’t have the power to change our fate, there are moments that hint to us the way things should be. That was my hint, and it gave me great hope for the future.

I mentioned in Part 1 to stay away from books that claim to “teach writing skills,” as they are generally ineffective. This is true for all but two publications that I know of: Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” and Stephen King’s “On Writing.” The first is the doctor’s-equivalent of a stethoscope and should be dangling from your neck at all times. The second is an inspiring memoir, a crash course on the writer’s technique, and Stephen King’s best book. A real must-have for anyone who loves the craft.

One last thing, it’s probably also worth mentioning, I never got into medical school.

Thanks for reading.


Featured image courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

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