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Baker-Berry

If you're preparing to write your college application essays, this blog post is for you! Perhaps you're looking for a topic to write about or wondering how you can put your best foot forward as you dive into applications. I've asked Topher Bordeau, Associate Director of Admissions, some questions about the personal statement essay and his work in the Office of Admissions! I so appreciate Topher taking the time to share his advice and hope you'll find his answers as helpful, insightful, and fun as I did!

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ES: Why is the essay so essential to Dartmouth applications? 

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.

ES: What advice can you offer to students struggling to find a topic for 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. 

ES: What do you most hope to learn about students from their essays? 

TB: I'm trying to come up with a metaphor that compares connect-the-dots and pointillism to explain how really good essays help me learn about students. I can't quite do it elegantly, though, so I'll belabor the metaphor and do it the ugly way: If each piece of information in your application (English major, hurdler, bass player) is a point, an adequate essay will connect those points in some way that's distinctive to you—not explicitly, mind you, but in a way that helps me see how those points combine to form your life. 

A great essay helps me step back from those points to get a glimpse of the distinctive picture that each point contributes to. That picture is you, and your essay helps me learn how different aspects of each point make you you.

To put it another way: how would you be different from someone with your same grades, same activities, same interests, etc.? This is a hard question—defining yourself against something you don't know is impossible. But of course you are different from everyone else who shares your interests, grades, and activities. Good essays show how that's true, not by outlining how you're unlike other people with similar interests, but by sharing what it is in you that resonates with those interests. This will be distinctive to you, and it will help me learn a lot about you.

ES: How broad/narrow should the scope of my essay be?  

TB: This is a technical trait common to good essays: they don't do much, but they do what they do really well. The odds are very strong that your initial topic is too broad. What you learned from Model UN is too broad. What you learned from Model UN during the pandemic is too broad. The offhand comment that your classmate made after Model UN ended last year, and how that comment changed the way you think about MUN… that's a good start. Good essays are more frequently narrow and deep than broad and shallow.

ES: What advice do you have for students struggling to choose a personal statement essay topic? 

TB: You don't need to reinvent the wheel. A common story (winning a state championship, losing an election) that's told in a way that's distinctive to you usually makes for a great essay. 

You can also crowdsource part of the process. Ask your family, your friends, your barber—people who know you in different ways—"what would you guess I'm going to write about?" The work needs to be yours; the inspiration can be borrowed.

Browse your search histories. Consider your favorite podcasts. Think, for a bit, about why Netflix wants you to watch what it wants you to watch. Scroll through the photos on your phone. 

Most of your best essay topics aren't in you. They're out there.

ES: What is your advice for students when writing early drafts of their essays? 

TB: There's a concept in the writing world called the lousy first draft. The idea is that you get your thoughts down without caring how they appear or work together, secure in the certainty that you'll have plenty of time to revise in later drafts. But that first draft will be a foundation on which you can build subsequent drafts. Some people struggle with lousy first drafts, but I think that's because they try to make them good, or even just less bad. Or maybe they think that if they try hard enough, they can write the whole thing on the first go, though that's precisely the kind of thinking that makes first drafts impossible. 

So start anywhere with your writing, and go anywhere. Don't worry about how you got from where you started to where you are now. And try not to worry about the spectacularly lousy way you'll get to your point. Just get there. Throw all of your thoughts out there and make them stick. The first draft is a sticky mess. 

But when you're done with that piece of garbage on your screen, you'll have created the thing that will eventually become your essay. 

And that leads to my other piece of guidance for students in the early stages of this: celebrate small victories. You may ask yourself, at some point, if your victory is too small to celebrate. It is not. Polished up your opening sentence by replacing that weak adverb with a better verb? Celebrate with cookies. Moved around a couple of sentences so that the narrative flows a bit more smoothly? Celebrate with pie! Wrote down an idea for a killer final sentence, even though you haven't started your final paragraph yet? Guess what: that final sentence is your final paragraph, and now you're done with that, too! Involve others in this celebration; invite your favorite teacher for pie.

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Thank you, Topher, for this fantastic insight and advice! I hope these answers serve as a helpful resource for you incredible prospective students as you write your personal statement essays! 

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