Writing *Those* Essays: Tips from a Dartmouth Admissions Officer
As you all know, I'm currently a Dartmouth Admissions Office Senior Fellow. This position keeps me very aware of the fact that, for many of you, right now is prime college application season. As we near Early Decision and Regular Decision deadlines, you probably have some questions about how you can put your best foot forward. To help you folks out, I asked Topher Bordeau, Associate Director of Admissions, some of the burning questions you may have about writing, the personal statement essay, and being an Admissions Officer!
All of the responses you'll read below are straight from Topher himself! As someone who is also beginning the search for higher education once again, this Q&A was super productive for me, too. I hope you all find Topher's answers as helpful, inspirational, and funny as I did!
CY: What role does the essay play in a college application?
TB: The essay animates the application in the same way people animate the campus. Without you, your academic interests and extracurriculars are just a list of subjects and activities. The narrative that your voice weaves around and through those subjects and passions are what make your application distinctive.
The essay is essential. I can't imagine an application that didn't involve an essay. Or, more accurately, I can't imagine what the colleges I've studied and worked at would look and feel like without an essay as part of the application process. I'm pretty sure they'd be way less interesting, fun, and rewarding places.
CY: Why do you love writing?
TB: Honestly, I don't know. I hate starting writing projects and often wonder if I could have done them better when I'm done, but that might say more about my own procrastination and self-doubt than it does about my feelings on writing itself.
I do know that when I'm captivated by the writing process, I often lose track of time, become oblivious to my surroundings, and even lose my sense of self. I can write for an extended period of time without losing focus or feeling tired or hungry. Writing can be euphoric, and it leaves a sense of deep satisfaction. I understand these feelings and experiences to be signs of what positive psychologists call a flow state. I'm not sure I fully understand that idea, and I know that I certainly don't experience these things every time I write, but I also know that few other activities in my life generate the same experience and feelings.
Writing is also one of the few things in the world that seems to come as easily to me as it does to smart people who I like and respect, so there might be some pride involved—it feels good to feel competent.
CY: What do you love most about reading applications for the Dartmouth Admissions Office?
TB: Assuming you don't want to hear about my appreciation for all of the wonderful baking projects that reading season inspires among my colleagues, there are three aspects of reading season that I love best: the chance to see the world through many different minds each day, the ability to see the class developing as I delve further into my app queue, and the chance to practice the process of being truly present with each app, which I think good reading requires. Here's what I mean by each of those choices:
No two applications are the same, so each application gives me the chance to read about either a topic that's brand new to me or one that I already know about, but through a different set of eyes. I've read essays about the football team, summer camp, and family recipes that helped me think about my own experiences with all of those things differently, and that's a treat.
As I read more and more applications each year, I get to think about how each of these characters that I've gotten a glimpse of will interact with each other. We're careful, when we're discussing applications in committee, to never "write between the lines" of an application even if we read between the lines. This means that while the information and narratives that an applicant share with us may inevitably lead to certain implications and inferences about that student (reading between the lines), we're careful not to assume that those implications and inferences will lead to any specific action or outcome (writing between the lines). That being said, it's still enjoyable and rewarding to imagine how different students will thrive on campus together.
Lastly, I appreciate reading season because I'm always trying to be more present in my daily life, and reading applications is a good way to practice that. Each file deserves and demands my full attention. Giving into distraction or assumption does a disservice to the applicant, so my job requires me to practice things over the course of the day that restore and rejuvenate my focus. Usually these things are visceral—exercise, cooking, or doing the laundry—and they clear my head after a long or intense reading session. When reading is going well, I'm deeply engaged both intellectually (in each file) and physically (in the things I do to maintain that engagement) every day. I appreciate that balance.
CY: What advice would you give to a student who is struggling with finding a topic for or writing their personal statement essay?
TB: I'll offer a don't and a do.
Don't think you need to write something I've never read before. That's a crazy kind of pressure for applicants to put on themselves, and no one needs that. Sometimes, writing about something the reader has likely never heard of can be a bad approach: the writer either risks explaining their topic incompletely and confusing the reader, or they're forced to devote so many words to explaining the topic that there's not much space left for the narrative and reflective parts of the essay. A common topic shared in a way that reflects the unique nature of the writer is a good essay.
Do try to figure out how to bring the "you-iest" part of you to the essay. Maybe that you-iest thing is, in fact, an uncommon topic that you're uncommonly psyched about (despite what I wrote above). Maybe that you-iest thing is just your own personal and unique perspective on a really common topic. Maybe no one understands why you get so worked up about split infinitives, or politics, or porcupines. (Did you know that a porcupine defends itself against its predators by running away--to induce pursuit--and then suddenly stopping short so that the predator collides with its quills and injures itself? I didn't either, until I read about this in an essay.) See your essay as a chance to explain why it is that you get worked up about these things. That's a good start.
CY: How do you personally navigate writer's block? Any tips for struggling students?
TB: I don't navigate writer's block. I get crushed by it.
I can think of maybe two times in the past year in which I've actually fought through it, and several dozen times in which I just stared at the screen and mused about what a failure I am because that cursor just kept blinking and I couldn't make words appear. If I were smart, I'd set a five-minute timer on my phone whenever I felt myself bumping into that concrete wall of empty thought, and if I hadn't started writing by the time the timer went off, I'd go do something else until I thought that I might be able to write again. But instead, most times I just sit there and think, think, THINK until my brain hurts. Then, if I'm lucky, I go exercise. Less constructive choices will bring me to my phone, or to Netflix.
The advice I'd offer students is this: if you really feel like you just can't write, don't. Find something else to do until you feel like you can. If there's something in your life that invariably helps you feel refreshed and good about yourself (exercise, art, meditation, etc), practice that as a regular habit and not just as a restorative antidote to a single bout of writers' block. That daily practice will promote both your best writing and your confidence that you can produce it on demand. Note that these activities rarely involve distracting things like the ones that typically happen on screens. Those may take your mind off of writing, but they won't prepare your mind for writing.
Also, I'd offer this observation as comfort against the idea that you can't step away because you'll run out of time to finish your essays: your best writing will take a surprisingly small amount of time. It's lousy writing that takes forever. Once you've managed to dust off all of the doubt and distractions that are suppressing your voice, things will happen delightfully quickly as your voice takes over and leads you towards a great essay.
Yakoke (thank you), Topher, for sharing your amazing perspective on all things writing! I hope these Admissions Officer perspectives on writer's block and personal statement essays help all of you amazing students with your college applications.