How to Spice Up Your College Application Essay (Especially For Theater Folk)

Greetings and Salutations! I have a bazillion things to say on this topic. In fact, I have so many that I created a whole business for it (Check out WriteWithRosie.com!), but since I just spent some quality time with the awesome folks at MT College Prep, I thought I'd outline some bonus essay writing strategies here.

In the interview, I offered these three "onstage" tips to organize your essay:

The Opening Number: "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" (Gypsy)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huxLKPsSyyU] Until your essay, most everything on your application is cut and dry: test scores, GPA, number of extracurriculars, etc. Your essay is the one spot you get to reveal YOU. So make it unique, especially with your opening sentence. Find a gimmick, or hook, to capture the attention of the reader. The hook shouldn't be outrageous; it should be fascinating.

So instead of this: "Directing a summer play for the kids in my hometown changed my life."

Try this: "I had to put on a strong front to keep order for 35 active kids in the middle of their summer vacation.  Not only that, but they actually had to give a decent performance in four weeks.  Talk about pressure."

The Act I Finale: "What You Want" (Legally Blonde)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huxLKPsSyyU] What do you want from each specific college you're applying to? The awesome conservatory program? The opportunity to work at the amazing regional theater that the school feeds its students into? The ability to major in a non-theater subject while still performing in shows with the theater department? Whatever it is, say it loud and clear, just like Elle Woods does at Harvard. (Though I would suggest leaving the marching band at home.) Whether Harvard is your first choice school or a safety school, the admissions officer reading your essay should think that Harvard is the ONLY school you want to attend. Also, if Harvard is your safety school, I'm jealous.

So instead of this: "I want to go to Harvard to pursue an MFA degree through The American Repertory Theatre Institute because of the production offerings."

Try this: "I am intrigued by the Institute’s 'no boundaries' approach to presenting theater in a new and innovative way, as well as the variety of performance styles ranging from new musicals (some of which I have actually auditioned for in New York) to reinterpretations of classical theater." 
The Closing Number: "Why We Tell the Story" (Once On This Island)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vs0CB-QnkSw] This is my favorite one (probably because I love the musical so much). What's the point of your essay? Obviously you're writing it because you have to, but why is what you're writing important to you and to your reader? As the song says, life, pain, love, grief, hope, and/or faith may be the "Why?" of your essay, but whatever your message is, make sure it's clear.

So instead of this: "I want to attend Carnegie Mellon to become a better actor."

Try this: "The greatest role I will ever play is to receive, use, enjoy and share my honest experience to touch the human heart.  And I want to become the best at this role that I can possibly be at Carnegie Melon."

Side note: If you can't tell what the "Why?" of your essay is, chances are that you should choose a new topic.

BONUS "BACKSTAGE" TIPS!!!! The "backstage" work is the effort you make en route to your final product.

Language & Tone: "I'm the Bravest Individual" (Sweet Charity)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQnsmHhE2Yc] Your essay should strike the perfect balance between confidence and humility. What does that mean? It means you should outline your best qualities without sounding like you're bragging. Check out these lyrics from the song:

"When I'm so jittery my knees buckle, Ice water tickles my spine,
I 'm trapped like a butterfly in a net.
Then I say to myself:
'I'm the bravest individual
I have ever met.'"

Dorothy Fields uses simple, colorful language to describe Charity's nerves and how she overcomes them. It tells us that Charity is confident, even though it can be a struggle to get there. And the language is much more interesting than simply saying, "Sometimes I get nervous, but I tell myself to snap out of it."


Collaboration: "I Can't Do It Alone" (Chicago)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrDlxQNS4rI] Whether you got a perfect score on your A.P. English test, can write a 20-page research paper in an afternoon, or are in the running for class valedictorian, you should never, ever write your college essay with only Word's spelling and grammar check for company. In the first place, you'd be shocked at the errors that Word can miss. And in the second, fourth, and millionth places, we are not necessarily our own best judges.

You know how different it feels to sing in the shower and sing onstage in front of an audience? Your voice has a new ring to it, your nerves can make you fumble a lyric you know by heart, and you might not have the same degree of confidence. It's often helpful to have a director guide you through your paces, confirming the strong points in your song and helping you overcome difficulties. The same is true with your essay. Whether it's your mother, a guidance counselor, your English teacher, or a family friend, it is vital to have an outside eye critique your work.

Of course, I am more than willing to be your personal essay guru! I can be your guide through the complicated essay writing process from start to finish either online, via phone, or in person. Contact me at WriteWithRosie@gmail.com for details!

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