In last month’s post, I illustrated several key story elements with the first part of my own story:
The moment I found the lump, I suspected my life was about to change—in a big way. It was mid-May 2001. I was a busy consultant in McKinsey’s Chicago office, the proud father of a boy about to turn one, and a generally happy guy in his early 30s.
It was tempting to wish the lump would just go away, and for a few days that was my strategy. I didn’t even tell my wife. But soon I recognized that knowledge is power, and made an appointment with my doctor. Within a week I had a diagnosis: cancer.
Those seven lines contained important story elements including a killer opening (more literally than usual, in this case), context (early 30’s consultant, Chicago, 2001), stakes (life and death), character (my fear and determination), and obstacles (cancer). You should include these key elements in all your story-based essays.
So what happened next? (incidentally, a well-told story uses these elements to make readers ask that question again and again, pulling them through the story)
Once I got past the initial shock, I discovered an unexpected challenge: choosing among major surgery, two rounds of chemotherapy, and “surveillance” (i.e., regular testing to see if the cancer was spreading). The options had the exact same survival rate (very high), but very different side-effect profiles. For example, the surgery was associated with potential nerve damage, while the chemo could have resulted in lower lung capacity.
This part of my story includes a twist and further obstacles. Twists, or surprise turns in stories—in this case, the challenge of choosing treatment—are not essential for grad school essays, but they can certainly make them more engaging: a teammate with a secret, a client’s abrupt shift in expectations, and the like. My unexpected challenge also represented an obstacle, in that I had to choose among three very different treatments with similar levels of effectiveness.
It was time for some deep research: with my wife’s help and inputs from my oncologist and other doctors, I pored over journal articles and other materials to understand my treatment options and their risks. For example, we learned that the surveillance course could take over five years before one could consider themselves cancer-free.
Here we have more evidence of character (how I took a methodical approach, rather than just picking a treatment impulsively or based on one doctor’s opinion), along with what I’ll call process, or how exactly I approached the obstacle. Too many of my clients leave out their process, skipping from “My team faced several major hurdles” to “The client loved our solution, and I got a raise.” Tell us what you did, how you did it, and ideally how you engaged others to overcome the challenge. Even my cancer story includes a team element (my wife and my doctors).
After weeks of research and deliberation, I opted for two rounds of outpatient chemotherapy. I said goodbye to my hair and hello to needles and nausea. The first week went well. But as I neared the second, my doctor called: the chemo had pushed my white blood cell count too low, compromising my immune system. I would have to wait. For two weeks I avoided raw fruit and vegetables and stayed inside as much as possible. My white blood cell count rose, and I completed the second week of chemo.
Now, over eight years later, I’m considered cured, a survivor. The only physical residue of my treatment is slightly wavier hair. But the experience reinforced the importance of a proactive approach (I found out most men wait over six months to get lumps checked), of careful due diligence in health and other matters, and of never giving up. I carry those lessons into everything I do. So I was right: the lump changed my life in a big way; but I never could have guessed how positive those changes would be.
The last part of my story brings more process (how I made a decision) and another twist (my low white blood cell count), along with the outcome and lessons learned. These last two elements typically tie together: my outcome (surviving cancer) reinforced multiple lessons, as noted above. It’s easy to spend too little (i.e., none) or too much (i.e., paragraphs) time on lessons learned; I’ve found that a line or three usually gets the job done. And I wrapped it all up by returning to my opening—I usually try to end (a killer ending) with a broader theme or key realization or glimpse of the future.
My story is just over 400 words, but it has all the important elements. My fellow editors and I would be happy to ensure that yours do too.
By Dr. Sachin Waikar, formerly a McKinsey consultant and now an author and advisor to business and grad school applicants.