Three Ways to Write a College Essay That Deserves Applause

You’re the best singer in your school and you can’t wait to show Carnegie Mellon what you’ve got, right? You get good grades, have glowing reference letters, more-than-acceptable SAT scores, and you plan to knock ‘em dead at your college audition with your thrilling rendition of “Gimme, Gimme.” Then there’s your essay. The one you wrote about that theater experience that meant a lot to you. About that time you tried to do that really hard dance move but fell on your face. The time you didn’t get the part you wanted. Or the time you hit a high C so glorious that your whole school is still talking about it.

If you’re applying to a musical theater program, you’ve most likely experienced one or all of the above. Buuuuuut so has virtually everyone you’re competing with. How can you avoid becoming just another theater cliche? How can you make sure that essay gets you a solo instead of a spot in the chorus?

1. Be specific. Be very, very, verrrrrry specific.

Being specific is what turns anyone’s essay into your essay. Don’t just tell me that you’ve always wanted to play Elphaba in Wicked. Tell me: “Wicked was never just a show for me—it was a way of life. It was what I sang in the shower, what I listened to on my iPod, what I did my book report on in Mrs. Danahe’s sixth grade class. Wicked had so taken over my life that I’m surprised I never turned green.”

2. Get a life.

Mention something about your life that is not necessarily theater-related. Colleges want to admit unique, interesting folks. So if you spend hours assembling railroad models or tinkering with 3D web design (both of which tell me that you are a meticulous, detail-oriented person, by the way), see if you can find a way to weave that into your story. Think about the admissions committee reading their way through thousands of essays. If every senior writes about theater, more theater, and nothing but theater, all those essays will blur together like the dots in a Georges Seurat painting. Adding a little outside info will give your writing a boost.

3. Tell me a story.

You’re a theater person. Your whole job is to tell stories. So tell me a story, doggone it! A story has a beginning, middle, and end. A story has a main character who somehow changes or grows during the course of events. A story doesn’t tell me about your journey. It takes me on the journey with you. Don’t fall into the trap of telling me that you felt “excited” or “nervous.” Tell me that you were “practically bouncing up and down in my Capezio heels” or “shaking so violently that I’m sure my bun was quivering.” Doesn’t that active language tell a much juicier story?

Step into the Spotlight!
Step into the Spotlight!

Finally…

Here’s a huge secret…

You’ll never guess, but…

Your essay doesn’t have to be about theater.

Seriously. Your essay should explode with personality. Period. Whether that explosion comes from a story about being in the spotlight on the stage or a story about that time you fell on your face during the all-school assembly….the choice is yours. But don’t feel locked into a “theater story.”

For an example of how a theater story can be more than just a theater story, take a look at the Our Town essay on page 180 of Alan Gelb’s Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps…or check out my grad school essay about directing a summer play.

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