I like to apply the principles established in Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick to personal statements and application essays. In this post I focus on concreteness.
The third of Made to Stick‘s six key principles, concreteness, doesn’t seem to apply to intangibles like leadership, achievement, teamwork, or character – the topics you typically need to cover in your essays. Yet, even when discussing abstractions, if your essays are concrete they will communicate more effectively and more memorably.
Here are five tips to make your personal statements and application essays concrete:
1. Use sensory language when appropriate. Write in terms of sights, sounds, smells, touch, and taste.
2. Break down large ideas into smaller sub-topics and concepts. (For more on this idea, please see “Fatal Flaw #4: Superficiality.” ) The grand summary or platitude won’t cut it.
3. Quantify when possible. Did you increase membership a lot when president or did you increase membership by 50%? Did you lead a team or did you lead a 10-person team?
4. Without using clichés, relate events, entities, and concepts to ideas that the reader already knows and trusts. For example if I say that “Accepted is the McKinsey of admissions consulting firms,” clients will expect top-notch work and a strategic approach to admissions.
5. Think about the human beings you are addressing in your essays. You have read interviews of and met with admissions committee members. Perhaps create a character that represents Chris Adcom for you. For me, Chris is usually smart, professional, and hard-working. Typically a “people-person” with a genuine interest in others, she also has a well–practiced nose for baloney and doesn’t like the odor. She is always short on time and consequently ends up skimming essays if they are boring or don’t answer the question, even though she doesn’t like to do so. She is dedicated to helping her school create a diverse, talented class of students who will be happy to attend her school, contribute to campus life as students, and add to the school’s reputation as alumni. That’s her job. Write your essays for Chris.
Use these five keys to concreteness when crafting your essays to make them more compelling.