What You Can Learn From
Michael Brown’s College Application Essay
I must have watched the viral video of Michael Brown learning he got into Stanford at least three times in a row.
Such a feat and well-deserved accomplishment for what seems like an all-around great kid!
Not only was Michael accepted to 20 of our top learning institutions—including Harvard, Stanford and Yale—but he got a full ride to each of them. As well as more than a quarter million dollars in scholarships.
These stories about students getting accepted into all the Ivies or a crazy number of elite schools hit the media this time of year.
They bother some folks in this crazy college admissions industry because the uber-achiever message fuels the pressure, stress and unreal expectations of students still trying to get into college.
There’s way too much emphasis on getting into elite colleges, I agree.
Anyone who has seen it play out knows without a doubt that it’s what you do in college, any college, that makes the difference in your life.
At the same time, I believe these exciting success stories can be worth sharing.
More than half the 3,300 students at his Houston public high school were considered at risk of dropping out.
He and his supportive single mom credited programs, such as Breakthrough Houston and Emerge, which help low-income and underprivileged students find ways to go to college, with his multiple acceptances.
Most of it was Michael, however, who learned early on how to set goals, work hard and persist despite the odds. Bravo, Michael!
THE REALITY OF GOOD AND BAD ESSAYS
Now, let’s talk about his essays—since that’s why most of you read my blog.
Apparently, Michael wrote three “core” essays and used them for different applications.
He shared this one with Forbes magazine.
If you want to hear my opinions and ideas about what I think worked and what you can learn from it, read that essay first.
One of the misconceptions from these success stories is that these students’ essays are all perfect and should be held up as shining examples.
From the ones I’ve read in the past, this is simply not true.
Yes, it’s fact that their essays did not keep the students out of their schools (since they got in), but you really have no idea what role their essays played in the acceptance decisions.
That goes for ALL essays. You just don’t know how much they mattered, even though it’s believed among most in the college application world that they usually can and do matter, especially among the most competitive schools.
However, simply because a student got into Harvard or Yale does not necessarily mean her or his essay was brilliant. There are often other factors that can override even a mediocre essay.
So, bottom line, write the best essay you can.
WHAT YOU CAN LEARN FROM MICHAEL’S ESSAY
With all that said, I believe Michael’s essay was well written and hit many of what I believe are the important markers for an effective college application essay, such as a personal statement for the Common Application, Coalition Application or others that require a student to reveal themselves and what they care about.
At the same time, it’s not the best essay I’ve ever read, and I believe there are ways to bump it up.
Remember, I’m super picky and after working with literally thousands of essays, I have a LOT of opinions.
I think you can learn something about your own essays by reading and analyzing sample essays written by other students, including Michael. (More Sample essays)
What did Michael do right? A LOT!
First, I believe he had a clear idea of the MAIN POINT he wanted to make about himself in this essay.
In his essay, we learned Michael was involved, passionate, empathetic, observant, moral, funny, idealistic—and above all someone eager to learn more about himself, others and the world at every opportunity.
Second, I love how he revealed his personality and passions through sharing several real-life moments, which I call anecdotes. (Learn More About Anecdotes)
Third, and this is always my favorite, he STARTED his essay with one of these everyday moments, in the form of an anecdote, which is one of the best ways to quickly “hook” or engage your reader at the very start of your essay.
It also didn’t hurt that much of the theme of his essay was timely and highly relevant—the idea that people are so divided these days along partisan lines and have trouble even discussing current issues.
Also, notice how a lot of the essay was dedicated to Michael sharing WHAT HE LEARNED toward the end of the essay. This type of analytical, introspective and reflective writing is what all effective essays need to be meaningful. (How to Go Deep In Your Essay)
Above all, Michael made sure his essay was highly personal. He shared a personal, everyday experience where he found himself in a vulnerable situation, and was open and reflective about that experience. This was his essay gold! (Learn The Secret of Personal Essays)
Now, could it have been better?
I think so.
Remember, I’m a professional editor, and I can’t help myself looking for ways to improve essays.
If Michael had shown me this draft, and he was still game to find ways to make it better, I would have had suggestions for him.
I would have assured him that it was a very solid essay, and he could stop there if he wanted.
There’s was nothing wrong with it.
However, I think he did what newspaper editors call “bury the lede.”
This means that the writer “buried” the most interesting example of the topic down low in the story, rather than starting with it to grab the reader in the introduction.
I loved that he used the anecdote about “the time” his hero Barrack Obama was elected president.
But I think he could have crafted an even more relevant, personal and impactful anecdote from the more interesting moment that he shared lower in the essay.
I would have told him something like, “OMG, the bloody steak! The idea of you with that ‘rare, soupy steak’ having to talk politics with a conservative mom would make an awesome anecdote!” (Yes, I really talk like that.)
As much as I love using anecdotes (real-life moments) to illustrate larger points in essays, the best ones involve some type of problem. (Problem = obstacle, challenge, conflict, embarrassment, mistake, setback, phobia, obsession, change, … )
If a moment doesn’t involve a problem, it can fall a bit flat and be on the dull side. (Example: When Obama won, that was all great to Michael…but there was no problem.)
Because a problem creates tension, and tension creates drama—it’s interesting!
Michael intuitively understood the power of a problem because almost half his essay shared a tense interaction between liberal him and the conservative mother of his friend, and featured the moment he wrestled with an undercooked steak and talked politics.
I would have suggested that Michael START his essay with that exchange, and use the dramatic tension to engage the reader.
Then he could have shifted back to the Obama moment as part of the “background” or context of his personal story to take the reader back and understand his liberal leanings and passions.
The moment with the steak was so relatable. The reader can easily picture Michael there in that awkward moment, with the raw steak and the steak-and-potato mom in her Texas vacation home.
Talk about tension! You want to know what happens next.
Also, problems often have an underlying tinge of humor.
The image of Michael staring down that steak, and intimidating traditionalist mom, struck my funny bone. If you can make an admissions officer smile or chuckle to themselves, you have made a lasting impression—and that’s exactly what you want!
It was “funny” and relatable because we have all been there!
The other beautiful thing about starting with a problem is that you can naturally delve into how you handled it, which Michael did beautifully, and then explain what you learned from it, which Micheal also did.
I also talk a lot in this blog and my writing guides about the power of the mundane, or ordinary, in writing. Michael’s essay was a great example of this.
What is more ordinary that a cookout at a friend’s home?
And what is more mundane, or concrete, than trying to choke down a raw steak.
One of your main goals with your essay is for it to “stand out,” or be memorable.
The best way to do this is not look for topics that impress the reader, but those that stick in their mind.
I can just hear the admissions officers dubbing this essay and referring to Michael’s essay as “The Bloody Steak” essay.
So, yes, I’m picky about essays, and push young writers to keep looking for ways to make their essays engaging, especially at the start, and also full of meaning by sharing what they learned, how they think and what they care about the most.
Michael did all this with his essay. And it obviously worked for him.
My goal in critiquing it here was to share some of the ideas and tips I think you can use to craft and knock your essays out of the park.
If you want to write an essay that’s as good, or even better, than Michaels, try this approach featured in “3 Steps to an Outstanding Essay,” which showcases how you can use the tips and ideas shared in this post.
Remember, problems are your friend.
And don’t be afraid to be open, and get personal!
And Michael, no matter where you decide to go to college, there’s no doubt you will rock it! Congratulations!!!