The Dominate Test Prep Podcast

7. Storytelling Essentials for Your Application Essays, with Michael Noltemeyer

October 22, 2019
The Dominate Test Prep Podcast
7. Storytelling Essentials for Your Application Essays, with Michael Noltemeyer
Chapters
The Dominate Test Prep Podcast
7. Storytelling Essentials for Your Application Essays, with Michael Noltemeyer
Oct 22, 2019
Brett Ethridge / Dominate Test Prep

Application essays are a crucial part of the admissions process, and effective essays essentially come down to good storytelling. Your goal as the protagonist of your own story is to become a hero that admissions officers want to root for, says Michael Noltemeyer, founder of North Star Editing and guest on this week's show. During our wide-ranging conversation, Micheal sheds light on just how to do that while sharing examples of successful essays from his 10+ years as a professional editor.

Specifically, in this episode you will learn:

  • The Japanese concept of Ikigai for finding your life's purpose, and how that's what you're shooting for on your application essays as well;
  • How writing an application essay is like a "choose your own adventure" story in reverse, and how that understanding should influence the aim of your essays;
  • What not to do in your essays (hint: you're probably not as clever as you think you are);
  • The key to finding the story inside yourself that only you can tell;
  • How to structure your essays;
  • The difference between a "Statement of Purpose" and "Personal Statement" and what to include in each;
  • A simple test to determine whether the story you want to tell will resonate with the reader;
  • How one student turned a Pokémon obsession into a great essay topic, and how you can write an equally meaningful essay around your passions;
  • Parting advice based on the wisdom of Mark Twain;
  • And more!

A polished essays takes time, so be sure to heed Michael's advice and get started early.

FROM THE MAILBAG

In this week's "From the Mailbag" segment, I answer the question, "Where can I get more reading comprehension practice?" Listen all the way to the end for my answer to that.

RESOURCES

Here are the websites and other resources referenced in this episode:

MOTIVATION

Here's the quote we began the episode with:

"Who are we but the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, and believe?" -- Scott Turow

Show Notes Transcript

Application essays are a crucial part of the admissions process, and effective essays essentially come down to good storytelling. Your goal as the protagonist of your own story is to become a hero that admissions officers want to root for, says Michael Noltemeyer, founder of North Star Editing and guest on this week's show. During our wide-ranging conversation, Micheal sheds light on just how to do that while sharing examples of successful essays from his 10+ years as a professional editor.

Specifically, in this episode you will learn:

  • The Japanese concept of Ikigai for finding your life's purpose, and how that's what you're shooting for on your application essays as well;
  • How writing an application essay is like a "choose your own adventure" story in reverse, and how that understanding should influence the aim of your essays;
  • What not to do in your essays (hint: you're probably not as clever as you think you are);
  • The key to finding the story inside yourself that only you can tell;
  • How to structure your essays;
  • The difference between a "Statement of Purpose" and "Personal Statement" and what to include in each;
  • A simple test to determine whether the story you want to tell will resonate with the reader;
  • How one student turned a Pokémon obsession into a great essay topic, and how you can write an equally meaningful essay around your passions;
  • Parting advice based on the wisdom of Mark Twain;
  • And more!

A polished essays takes time, so be sure to heed Michael's advice and get started early.

FROM THE MAILBAG

In this week's "From the Mailbag" segment, I answer the question, "Where can I get more reading comprehension practice?" Listen all the way to the end for my answer to that.

RESOURCES

Here are the websites and other resources referenced in this episode:

MOTIVATION

Here's the quote we began the episode with:

"Who are we but the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, and believe?" -- Scott Turow

spk_1:
00:00
who were we? But the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and believe Scott Turow's Hello and welcome to the Dominate test prep podcast. I'm bred Ethridge, your host, and we have a very special guest for you today. It's a topic I'm really excited about. And before I introduce him, let me actually just set the stage a little bit. So my expertise is in test preparation. As you know, and actually is part of your standardized tests, you almost certainly have to write an essay or two. Those essays, however, are very academic in nature. You're analyzing arguments, your building and crafting a compelling argument of some sort yourself in most cases. And yet there's Maur to the application process than just your standardized test. In fact, the standardized test is a crucial piece. It's a very important piece, but some would argue that other aspects of the application are Justus important, orm or important, including the application essays themselves. And that's what we're gonna be talking about today. So I have invited a special guest who is an expert whose specialty is in editing and helping students craft ideal application essays. These are the types of essays where you get to actually tell your story. You get to fill in gaps in your application. You have a lot of free rein in a lot of cases to figure out what you can tell the admissions officers to help you stand out to help your application stand out. And that is absolutely crucial. I get questions like this for my students all the time. You know that we're going back and forth about test preparation or whatever it is, and and then they'll send me an email and say, By the way, do you help with application essays? If I sent you an essay, could you look at it? I said, E, I can definitely help you with the grammar, but let me point you in the direction of somebody who really can help you with that. Somebody like Michael Multi Meyer. He is our guest today. Michael is the founder of North Star editing. He is a Yale undergrad. He taught English at University of Massachusetts U Mass. In Boston before moving to the West Coast, or, some would say, left coast, where he now lives in L. A. He is a writing instructor at loyal men loyal, a Merry Mount University and also a full time editor helping students just like you with their application essays at Northstar editing. So there's Maur to Michael. He'll fill in some of those gaps for you, and those are the types of things. Certainly that would appear on a resume those of the little bill bullet points. But there's a lot more to Michael and his story. So Michael, welcome and I'll actually kind of term it over to you. How did you get here? Tell us a little bit more about you and your story?
spk_0:
02:51
Well, so first thing's for having me. It's good to be here. And, ah, as a way, if I think framing that question, there's a really useful concept that I like to talk with students about when they're writing. There s is, ah, it's a Japanese word called geeky guy and so geeky guy is this concept that the goal of life like the way to find you like your purpose, your role, your ultimate value is to consider the intersection of re different circles on a Venn diagram, So there's a set of things that you're good at. There's a set of things that you enjoy doing, and there's a set of things that you can get paid for doing. And so how did I get here? The shortest possible answer is that this is that the intersection of those three circles. For me, this is the set of things that I'm good at, that I enjoy doing and that I could get paid for doing. And the cool thing about it is that what I'm essentially doing is helping you find your own geeky guy to get you closer to the bull's eye as well.
spk_1:
03:51
That's also I love that concept that's like the dream, right to be doing something at that perfect intersection. So if you're listening that that should be the target, by the way, let me back up quickly. How so? When I met Michael, we we got to know each other a little bit, and it was almost a deal breaker in terms of ever doing something like this together because it turns out he's a Kentucky fan. As most of you know, I went to Duke undergrad, Um, and and I am a big Duke fan. S o. You taught in Massachusetts. You went to Yale now you're living in l. A. How in the world did you become a Kentucky fan?
spk_0:
04:26
S o. I was born and raised in Kentucky s O. I like to say it's a birthright that ah, uh, duke fans can only ever aspire to. Ah, what s So I grew up in Kentucky and Ah, thanks. I've lived now in Kentucky, Indiana, Connecticut, Florida, into Mexico, New Hampshire and California. So I've pretty much all the parts of the country, except, I guess the Pacific Northwest. Ah, yeah, I mean, so, like you said So like, I went to Yeo. And then I actually spent a year in a dual degree MD PhD program at Florida. Uh, and I decided that that really wasn't going to be easy guy for me, and I was not like that intersection that everyone's Targeting s. So I left and I had to spend some time thinking about what it was that I really did want to do. And if I had tried had an application essay at that point, it would have been just this muddled mess because I wouldn't have known what my own story was, let alone how to tell it Ah, so, like it required. Like in order to even know what to do next. A lot of thought, a lot of careful self reflection probably took every career assessment known to man and shattered anyone who would put up with me for a day. And ultimately what I realized is that I most enjoyed writing and teacher. Those are the things I think I'm best at doing, and most enjoy doing it well. So if the things that I've always enjoyed I have enjoyed if it to the extent they have involved writing and teaching, why don't I cut out all of the other parts and just go all in on writing and teaching? So I went back to grad school and got a degree in that. And so now I'm I guess, an itinerant college writing teacher. Ah, but I also do this Ah, because I have been living the application process for a long time, and now I'm sitting on the other side of it, helping people say, like, hey, come on over to like this side of the fence. It, like the grass, is in fact greener over here,
spk_1:
06:21
and one of the things that you have realized is that storytelling is an important part of that. One of the things that I love, and I'm intrigued by you. You actually wrote it in a guest article you wrote on my blawg Dominate test prep dot com forward slash blawg and it's on your on your Lincoln description. You say writing an application is like being trapped in a choose your own adventure story that someone else is reading. Your fate lies in the hands of your audience. I think that's just a powerful mind set for a student to adopt when they think about writing their essay. But what does it mean? Tell me a little bit more about what that involves
spk_0:
07:03
eso. When I was little kid, I used to. I mean, so they don't me wrong. I read everything, but I really liked when I was in elementary school abuse like choose your own adventure books where it's like I had one. It was about a baseball game, and you were like you were the catcher, that that was the role that you had taken on. And so at that. You get to certain junctions in the book and it would say, Do you want to call for the fastball or the slider? If fastball turned age like 37 if slider turn to Page 59 then the story would change, something different would actually happen based on that choice that you made. And so, like the whole conceit, like the appeal of a choose your own adventure story is that you're not just passively taking in a predetermined narrative that you are actually determining the narrative yourself. And so, like, I think that idea of choosing your own fate appeals to a lot of people. That's why that genre continues to exist. Problem here is that we have a little bit of a row over, so you're not the reader guiding the characters. Rather, you have become the character being guided by the readers. You're not in charge of the way the story goes anymore. The person who's saying like if we want to admit this person to the class, add them to the left bio. If we want this person not to be admitted to the class, add them to the right pile. That's not you. And so it's, I think there's a kind of a feeling of powerlessness that goes along with that realization like my fate is actually out of my hands. Someone else is making a choice that will have long lasting ramifications on the course of the rest of my life. I really want a particular thing, but I I am now just another piece of paper and a pile we don't know unbelievably high. They've been trying to convert to Digital recently, but it really at Yale when I work in the admissions office for four years, it used to fill the whole basement every year because they were getting over 30,000 applications and everybody's sending in a pretty thick stacked stuff. So, yeah, he's like, conservatively back. The reason that I used that metaphor is if you can accept this premise like I am the character, someone else's reading the story. The way for you to take any symptoms and semblance of control back is to accept that you're the character and become a character that they can root for. If you make yourself into a protagonist that they want to succeed, then you have aligned your interest with their interests. They want to do the thing that you want them to do, You're much more likely to get them to add you to that. Admit I'll in contrast, IQ you make yourself into an unlikable protagonist or a boring protagonists like I don't need to read any more of this story. I've had enough. I don't want to keep reading. Ah, and so, like you said like it is a mindset is a way to approach the entire application process.
spk_1:
10:00
So it seems to me there has to be a balance. You know what end outcome you want. Ideally, you would like the reader to choose you to go to the admit pile. So to what extent can you reverse engineer that, and to what extent you just still ultimately need to be authentic to who you are? Tell your story and hope it's good enough.
spk_0:
10:20
It means a great question. And I think there are like you said, like I think there are elements of balance here, and so I can tell you some of the fastest way is not to be a compelling protagonist, not to get them to want to choose your adventure. Ah, and one of them that a lot of people do is write like a very generic essay. And so, like Yes, like I can't tell you how many times I have seen a draft from yet That falls into a format that the applicant thinks it's really clever. And so you think it takes the form of like looking at their own application in the third person, like he sits studiously at the keyboard late at night. Considering carefully which key issue should press in which combinations in order to convince the very intelligent and good looking admissions officer to want to choose this file. It's like, I think every time someone comes up with that, they think it's the first time it's been done. But, like I probably see it dozens of times per year. Ah, I've seen it hundreds of times over the last decade. It's not a new idea, right? And so it is. It can be mildly clever in the freezer, but it doesn't do anything to help you stand out relative to the rest of the pile. Why should they choose you? You have given them literally no reason to do it. Ah, and so when you say, How do you, like be yourself authentically like that is the ball game like that's the heart of the issue, because the way that you get them to want to pick you is by finding and telling the story that only you can tell and everyone has war. One of the problems is since you're living your own story and you don't know anyone else that story like you, you don't have the experience of being someone else. And most often, people don't ever look at someone else's application. I say they don't have that sense of what everyone else is writing. It's like I don't blame them for not knowing that The idea they thought was really clever is not new because they're not me. They haven't been reading thousands and thousands of these for over 10 years now. But everyone does, I firmly believe, have a story somewhere inside of them that no one else can tell. And if you can find that story, that's the way it's like Oh, like this is new. This is refreshing. I do want to keep reading this because I haven't heard it before. I don't know where it goes. If I can already kind of start like the first few sentences, sort you into a tight like I know exactly how this essay is going to end. I don't need to finish reading. So surprised me. Give me something new. What can you bring to the class that no one else can bring? What have you seen or done or experience? Been through overcome that no one else has s 01 of the things that I do a lot with students is like, Look, tell me who you are. Forget about the essay for a second. Tell me your story. Because if you roll it all past me, it can be really easy. If you have 1/3 person perspective, just say we'll go back. That that thing that you just glossed over like that right there stands out to me that catches my attention. Let's dig in on that because, like, I think that is a piece of you that no one else can relate to. And so, like, tell us what that is like. You don't need to tell me what it was like to, I don't know, be concerned about asking out a prom date or like trying out for the varsity baseball team like we've been there we've done that. But like off the top of my head, I had one not long ago that waas a story of a first generation immigrant who got to the U. S. And then shortly after arising. Ah, the parent had a major medical issue. And so the student who's writing the application more or less had to assume the bureaucratic responsibility of filing all the paperwork and managing the legal status and making sure that the younger siblings were going to school across a language barrier across all these other things and so had been initially very concerned. Like, how am I going to explain away my G p? A is a little bit lower, like the average G p a of student applying Thio, Yale or Harvard Or maybe even Duke, huh? Ah would be like a four point. Oh, and like I have like, a 3.9. Like, what is it that you like? How can I ever make up that ground? And so, like, once I heard that story, I was like, Honestly, don't even know how you had a 3.9 like I got a four point. Oh, but I wasn't dealing with any of those things in high school like that was so totally foreign to me, I couldn't have even imagined what it would be like. Toe handle the responsibility that you had. So put me into your shoes. And now all of a sudden, like Like, Imagine if you're listening to this podcast right now, I'm asking yourself into the place of the admissions officer who is reading the story and thinking, How on earth does anyone shoulder up to this responsibility and a new culture in a new language with more less the entire family, Everyone you know and love, depending on you. And you managed to not only, like, navigate that bureaucratic mind field in such a way that everyone gets what they want need. You don't make any major mistakes. People make mistakes all the time. What lawyers make mistakes in that process? You navigate it perfectly, and you still somehow put up a 39 in high school along the way. That's the kind of student I want in my class, because I mean, like, man, what does that student do? If they get like just this one little flimsy, the opportunity and then they do something awesome like this. Like now I'm gonna open up the doors off an Ivy League university because I really want to see what they do next. And that's the power of the Choose your own adventure, like I want to choose this adventure because I want to see what this character will do if I let them loose in, like a playground of opportunities that have never been available to before.
spk_1:
16:34
Now it seems like there's there's a couple aspects of that that are interesting to me. The first is you could have a good story, an interesting story and still not tell it Well, so how do you structure the essay is their first A, then B, then see structure. Should somebody follows to that? Actually, the compelling story does come through. And then I guess the second part to that is there are lots of good stories that The Lion King is a good story but may not be relevant to actually getting into college or graduate school. So are there certain aspects of your story that are better to highlight than others and things to omit?
spk_0:
17:17
I agree that the language is a great story. I would say, most people should probably not be invoking a traitorous uncle and the succession to the throne unless they happen to be a Danish prince of some sort. Ah, I haven't actually edited that essay. Uh, but like, if you're out there and you're listening to the broadcast, let's talk. I would like to work with you. I think we can frame this an interesting list. Ah, one of the lines that I often use with students is that stories like all stories at bottom, are fundamentally moments of change. If nothing changes, then it's not really a story. And so, like, you've probably had this experience of listening to someone tell a story, and it's a really bad story and very quickly you don't care. But it just keeps going and going and going. And so, like, when I was in high school, we actually had a name for this. We called them, and one time I went to my locker stories because if somebody would tell this like, interminable like, poorly constructed, rambling, incoherent, decorative, and the second they finished, we'd be like Cool story, bro. And one time I went to my locker.
spk_1:
18:23
My seven year old son does that. You know, at some point, we're like, all right, get to the point, then, right, Well,
spk_0:
18:30
and so, like the point of and one time I went to my locker, I mean, so I got that point. I had not like injured rats who had studied story structures like I could have articulated in quite this way. But the reason it works, I think just skewer the storyteller is. And one time I went to my locker is not really a story, because nothing is changed. Nothing interesting happen, guy. And so if you're telling a story where there isn't a change, it's not a story, all right? But I think a lot of people choose good stories and then, like you said, structure them poorly. Ah, and so if you give me a moment of change, But you don't give me enough around it to understand what changed and why the change mattered. Uh, then it's not impact one anyway, I might not even read. It is a change. I might misread it and think that it's a one time I went to my locker story when actually there was a lot more there, Uh and, sir, if you read a book about story structure one of the first pieces of any stories, usually what we call ground situation and so like don't worry, this is not gonna be on the final exam. Ah, you don't need to memorize the vocabulary. But you know, ground situation already. Because every like fairy tale that you've ever heard before usually starts with once upon a time. Eso like once upon a time before Cinderella got the invitation of the ball, she basically lived a crappy life. And her evil stepmother and her mean old step sisters were just generally awful to her. And so, like, I get some sense of how things have gone for an unspecified period of time, both forth and start to change. And it's interesting if you start thinking about it because I just said stories or moments of change. And now I'm saying, Hey, give me something from before Things have started to change at all. But it's all about the contrast because if you start with Hey, the invitation to the ball arise. Cinderella wants to go, are evil. Stepmother won't let her go. I don't have any information to compare that to you? I don't know if this is like Ashley, a very caring stepmother and a teenager without the perspective to know that her stepmother has good reason for wanting her not to go to this particular ball, where she suspects that something terrible is going to happen. Whether Cinderella has actually been like, behaving outrageously, she's failing math and like she's been grounded. Ah, like if you don't give me any of the back story, I can't read the change and know how things were different from the way they used to be. And so, like I do need that moment of this is what things were like before they started to change so that I can measure the change so that I understand in contacts. Oh, like I do like I'm with you like I fuel the tension rising and I know what's at stake. And so often it's easy in a draft to leave that part out, which really just robs it of all of its power. All right and so great. Leaving out ground situation, I think, is at least happy essays. I see. Don't give it to me now and then on the back end the reverse of this. If you actually like, model it out, if you're really interested, you can look up free Tax pyramid Ah, which is just a model of story structure. If you think of the turning point, sometimes people call it a climax like that's the point of highest tension in the story. And so we start with ground situation that we're building up tension all the way until we get to this turning point and then things have got to start to settle back down on the back. Yet we generally don't leave a story right at the turning point. You'd be like, Well, like, what happened that, like, imagine, like being in the theater and like, Oh, your action euro is like pinned down under heavy gunfire. He's got to make a, like, a really critical decision that, like molten people, are gonna live or die based on what he does. And then the real cuts out like you're gonna demand your money back like hey, like, what happened next? And so, like, we need that sense of like falling action resolution. How does this story end up? What were things like after the turning point Uh, And so that's another moment that often gets left out. People identify turning points, and even if the turning point is really good, like you've picked out like a a really critical moment of change, and I'm interested in the change, I don't understand what change unless I get the aftermath, because that's what you're saying. Like here's what things were like before the moment of change. And here's the moment in which things actually changed and then on the back end, here's what it was like because of that moment going forward. Ah, and so when you talk about story structure like we need all of those pieces, I need a before and I need an after to put the change itself into perspective. Otherwise, you're robbing me of the perspective that would allow me to say, Oh, wow, I get it like I have not experienced that moment for myself. But I have some idea of what it would be like. I have You've given me access to the emotions of experience I haven't had in a life that I haven't lived, and that's retarded.
spk_1:
23:47
So that's super helpful in terms of a structure that a student can follow. How does a student tie that structure to the actual question being asked, How important is it to follow? The actual wording of the essay prompts that the school wants. And how much of it are you still essentially telling your story? If if it's a generic statement of purpose type of, it s a versus more of a very specific essay question that the student is trying to answer. How do you How do you then tie your story back to saying And here's why I deserve to be admitted to Duke University.
spk_0:
24:24
Well, so we should probably distinguish between some vocabulary. Ah, so, for example, like statement of purpose and personal statement? Yes. They are both at part of your application than they actually mean different things. If only one or the other is part of the application, then they sort of mean the same thing. Ah, so if they're both used a personal statement Is that your story? How you came to be interested in whatever it is you're interested in, how you came to decide that this is the right course of study for you? Ah, like what motivates you to succeed? Ah, so you like it? It's the backstory of you more or less. And statement of purpose is a much more specifically targeted. Why this particular graduate program? Why this particular school? What exactly will you study while you're here? What exactly would you like to do next? Ah, and so like, the statement of purpose is certainly very rigorously, academically or professionally focused, whereas again, like the personal statement, is like almost like the director's cut to the statement of purpose. Uh ah. Some essays have very particular prompts. And so, like just this example of top my head business school essays love to ask about, like, a moment of failure. And so if you decide, like they don't really care about the prompt, I would rather write about, like the metaphorical significance of what I had for breakfast. I would argue that that itself is an example of failure, like it's not going to get you into business school God, if there is very little in the way of a prompt or if it's like a college application where it's basically personal statement, you have a little bit more leeway. Colleges are generally less prompt, focused, been professional schools, so you do have some room, I think any in most personal Damon's, especially her college, to interpret the prompt in a way that you see fit. Ah, in order to choose a good story, Uh, sometimes I see drafts that come in and in addition to like, structural problems that we just talked about, it doesn't feel to me like a particularly resonant experience. And there's a really simple test that I'd like to apply that you get. There are pieces of what I do that would probably be hard to replicate at home because you are yourself. And it's hard for you to see yourself from someone else's perspective, especially someone who has been reading thousands of these for over 10 years. But this one in particular, I think, like you can do pretty reliably for yourself. So whatever story it is, you have told your thinking about telling, um, so many people get so caught up in the way they're telling that story itself that they forget to talk about what it means. And honestly I like, I think if we got any director of admissions in here and asked, do you care about the problem? Mostly we're gonna say no. We give a little bit of leeway. And then if you followed it up, why Why do you get a little bit early where they would tell you? Because we don't actually care that much about the story. We only care about what it means. The story itself is a vehicle for you to reveal to the admissions committee what matters to you? So your explanation of why you chose to tell a particular story is usually more important than the story itself. And so e mean, like, just as an example, I can go back to the one I brought up a while ago. Like the really powerful story of the first generation immigrant, Aiken Torpedo, that in no time I can make that a bad essay if I do something like this. Like the experience that I had as a first generation American proves to me that the American dream is dead. Americans are horrible people, and I want to leave the country as soon as possible. Like I just turned that toxic in three sentences. Ah, so if that's the meaning that you're extracting from it. So like she you didn't say that like that was like me like that for the sake of an example I don't want, like, malign someone necessarily, but ah, the meaning that you extract from it. He is my takeaway. It tells me about the mindset of the person who created it. And so the test that you can apply whatever story you have in mind, why does this matter today? Why is this important? Ah, and so sometimes it will be like, Oh, well, it's important to me because it was the first time that I did this or it was the best example of this. And so it's actually in those cases really amusing to me. Like as an editor, I'll be taking notes like we're having this conversation in whatever you tell Mae. I'm writing it down, okay? And then, like when you get the draft back often I have replaced much of your first draft with the things that you told me. In response to that question, I have shifted the balance very much away from story and into interpretation of story. Why, it was important you had the answers inside of you. But it's hard for you to see the problem necessarily on like reading a draft because you're interpreting what's on the page with the benefit of all of the things that you already know that are in your head but aren't in mind. And so I don't have the ability to read it the same way that you're reading it until we get those things on the page. And so we're pulling out of you what it means and why it matters. And if you know it, it's great. Like the essay immediately starts to come alive. Ah, it starts to lift up off the page and, like sing Ah! And then, in contrast, and so like when I said, this is attached, if I say, like, why does this story matter? And you don't have an answer for me? Well, I guess it really doesn't like it happened recently. It was the first thing that came to mind. I had already written this for a school paper, and I decided to re use it. Then it's the wrong story. That's how you know if you can't tell me why your story is particularly meaningful to you, you have no business telling it on a college application.
spk_1:
30:35
Coulda, students start with that question. So that's another studio. Another question I get fairly often is a student who says, I don't I'm not interesting. I don't I don't have a good story. I can't think of anything. What? And so this kind of goes back to the very beginning the choose your own adventure, just a CZ, you explained. When you're sitting there, you don't know what's in the writer's own head because you're not in there. You have to flush that out. The reader of the application essay in the admissions office also doesn't have that context. You have to actually explain it and tell that Would it be a good idea to actually start with the end in mind and say, What is the point? I am trying to get across and then find a story that fits that? Where does that miss some sort of an emotional impact that is needed?
spk_0:
31:25
So any rule of writing that I could ever formulate is a good idea for some people in a bad idea for other people like any rule that I could possibly give you. There is definitely a counter example of some writer who has a very successfully broken it. So I actually tell my students Ah, like I don't teach you the the rules of writing in order to make you obey them at all times. Under all circumstances, I teach you the rules of writing because there are consequences to breaking them that you incur. Whether you're aware of those consequences are not. And so I'm trying to raise your awareness of what the consequences are so that you can decide for yourself win and where and how and why you want to break them. Sometimes you do want that so, like I just doesn't example lift up my head. Aah! You May High School English teacher insist a sentence should never start with the conjunction. You can't serve since with Butt or and but that rule is not really a rule. It all that rule was, I think, an outgrowth of an observation by a writing teacher a long time ago. Who said if you do it in every sentence, it makes your writing feel disjointed. There's a lack of cohesion and flow through the essay, and a soon as writing teachers are talking about creation and flow. A lot of students here to check out because style is really nebulous concept. It's part even for writers to talk about what constitutes style. You pick up a Hemingway book, and it will say something about Hemingway did more to change the style of English prose than any writer in the 20th century. That's why he won. The Nobel Prize is lean, athletic pros, all right, But I would imagine it like if you are kind of a smart ass like I was in high school and you take a Hemingway book to your high school English teacher and say, Tell me more what makes this prose lean and athletic as compared to Ah, maybe like skinny, but not particularly graceful like what would lean, clumsy pros looked like? Or what would flabby athletic grows look like? That's a really hard question. Uh ah. Now a grain of salt like your teacher will probably be. We'll know that you're showing them up a little bit, so, like, I don't necessarily recommend that. But we were talking about style in general and the consequences of breaking rules. I think it's important to acknowledge what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for everyone. Uh, I think it's also important to say the end, that we're talking about it, beginning with the end in mind. It depends on which end we're talking about, because I can make an important distinction here, too. If your end is I want to get into school and then you start thinking like, What is they? Can I reverse engineer the process and likes to say certain magic words and then admissions officers will definitely want to admit it? You're probably going down the wrong path because you're not thinking about things that are meaningful to you, and that's what they want to know. They want to know what's meaningful to you. Can you start with what is meaningful to you and generate stories around it often, but not always. Uh, I have definitely worked with students to brainstorm that way before. Ah, so they tell me what matters to you now If the first thing that comes out is I like, I don't know, I'm pretty average. Nothing matters to May like there's a subset of students who really feel that way. That's not gonna work. We're gonna have to push beyond that, okay, But honestly, almost anything can become the subject of a really good essay if you dig into why it matters, Uh, and so I have had students come up and say like, here's the essay that I wrote and I read it and like, this feels very generic. To me, this feels very flat. It doesn't feel like you care about the things that you're writing about. So let's put it aside for a second. Tell me what you do care about, and often the answer will be well, like my like my mom, my teacher, they read it. They said that, like, I couldn't write about the things I do care about. Okay. What do you care about? A student was like Pokemon. I'm all in on the Po. Came out like that Like I play Pokemon. Go. I have, like, friends all over the world. Like like we trade the cards, we collect the decks, we assemble, uh, games online like I'm not involved in this world. I may be using the wrong terminology to describe it, but like this Waas get, like a fairly large element of like how he spent his time. Okay? It was like we can work with this. There's nothing intrinsically wrong about like I'm really into a video game, so long as you can tell me what it means. Uh, yes. The idea is like, How do you spend your time like, What do you like doing if you are like a Mike TV character from like William the Willy Wonka and a Roald Dahl Charlie and Chocolate Factory like my TV was the character who won the Golden Ticket and all he wanted to do was watch TV, even as they're trying to interview him. He's like, Shut up! The show's on. Uh, that's probably not gonna go along like it's not gonna come off very well because the equivalent would be like, I love playing video games because it's easier to do that than to go to school because I don't like it becomes almost like escapist, even if you don't use that word and like, that's not impressive today. But in contrast, imagine something like like this folk Amon s say they really get did get turned in. If the idea is, I'm really fascinated by Pok Mon for a number of different reasons, even though a lot of the adults in my life look down on it, here the ways in which it is meaningful to me. For one, it allows me to meet people from all over the world. Guy like I have friends in, like, six different countries that I regularly correspond with because we share this bearing ditch interest and like had we lived in, I don't know, like the 19 fifties before the Internet E. I mean, I guess we could have sent letters, Maybe, but even probably not like some of the Cold War would have prevented a lot of this communication from ever taking place. And then also, like, we would have really been able to have the same kind of relationship if it takes six weeks for my letter to get all the way across the Atlantic as compared to like, we all sit down at a designated time and like it's evening for me. It's morning for him. It's metal afternoon for somebody else. But like we have coordinated all of our schedules, and we have built our lives in such a way that we can all share this passion and, like we've created a network of social support. Ah, like that's really interesting to me. Like that speaks to, I think a lot of elements that show up in, like, Atlantic cover stories. Now, like we live in an increasingly globalized digitized world like, Yeah, I can sit down and theorize about that, but like this guy's on the ground experiencing it, He has a life that I have not had that I can't really relate to. Like I'm I want to know more about it. I want to know, Like, how did you even come across this guy in Belarus in the first place who, like, agreed with you in the original debate that, like Pekka Chu, is the best program out of all time? I don't Ah s so that's what one element. But then he says, like there are other elements. So, like, people look down on it because they don't understand that, like, this is my friend group. This is my social circle like these people means something to me. Independently, a program on this is just the thing that occasions us coming together, he says, or another things like look like people are always telling me you need to get outside more. You need to engage with world like you need to get some exercise, and he's like, Look like I'm not an athlete like I tried out for sports because my parents made me. But, like, I'm not particularly coordinated or graceful or any. Like, I am not the human equivalent of Hemingway's prose, uh, lean and athletic. So, like I tried these things and I felt like it wasn't for me, all right. But this, like Pokemon go. This, like virtual reality world laid over the real world has given me a like a way to go out and do things that I enjoy. Ah, and so, like, honestly, I think everyone deserves to find some form of exercise that they enjoy, like some way issue me a miserable experience is my argument like you shouldn't have Thio either be unhealthy or do something you hate that that should be neither, or he's like this is the way that I get to do things that are good for me on, like explore new places, like even in my own town, like I wouldn't have been over to, you know, like this like historic Cemetery and, like, learned more about like the people who used to live in my town had this video game that is so maligned, not cost me to go out and interact with the physical space around back, he says. Like on top of everything else, like the central premise of the game is, Let me collect. Oh, I don't even know how many there are. Like, I think they're 150 original set. But like that was when I was in seventh grade and I played it, and that's been a while. Ah, so but collected them all shows like this idea of collecting is interesting to May on, like it's actually spurred me to start reading about. Thank you conservation efforts like How do we know how many different forms of wildlife there are in the real world? Ah, is there a master list? Probably not, because it wasn't like, created in the way that Pokemon waas. So how do we decide which ones were worth protecting? How do we even know what the difference is? How do we decide? Ah, and like this again is a theme that shows up like I just read a New York Times science article not long ago, where they said, Hey, actually, there are like five species of giraffe like we didn't know that there were this many kinds of draft. We best. We thought that they were drafts like long next four legs, spots like ants draft. But now, like, Hey, there are more kinds of draft than we thought. And so again, like what I think makes this essay so fascinating is his contention. When I start talking about video games like my parents, my college counselor is my teachers all shut down. They say, Like this is not a worthy subject. And yet, because of my engagement with this video games, I'm building a network of social support. I'm getting exercise. I'm learning about the town that I live in. I am reading about issues that are showing up in cover stories in the Atlantic and The New York Times. Science. Paige. I'm engaging with all the same big questions that you adults are. I'm just doing it through a lens that happens to interest me, and I think that you could do that in almost any field. Almost any field becomes interesting very quickly if you ask the right questions. So this, like kind of a long winded answer. But I would take it back to that idea of the story is less important than the meat. Then you make out of it. And so he tells me this is meaningful to may like. Great. Tell me why. If you can tell me why it matters, almost anything can become a good story. If you can't tell me why it matters, then even something that seems like it ought to be fascinating can quickly become very, very dull.
spk_1:
43:21
So I'm John Doe applicant. Can I just tell you what what interests me and have you write the essay for me?
spk_0:
43:30
Ah, So the line that I have on my website that I stand behind is I don't s s for people I can't write. Essays were people because the best that I could possibly do would be to give you an impeccably written, impersonal statement. I am not you. I I don't know what these things mean to you. Certainly I can help you identify like this is a story that I haven't heard a lot before. Against the background of having read thousands of days. Certainly I can help you decide how to structure a story. So, like another principle of shaping a story that non fiction writers like to talk about. It's this idea of selection, elimination and emphasis. Which details matter to us which details or less relevant in which details should refocus on. All right. So certainly I can help you apply to select of the center of things that really happened to you. Which ones we care about which ones we should display prominently. Which ones we can kind of like sweep off the edge of the page into a cut file for some future to document. Ah, but if I were just creating out of whole cloth, it's not gonna work a swell, because I'm not you because I don't know you because I don't have, like, no matter what you tell me, there will be parts of your life that I still don't have access to you. And so if you are working with me so I am more less like so I present myself on the ones that is a story is telling Sage. Okay, if I'm like the consultant to help draw out of you the words that you don't know you have in you Uh, then it works really, really well. The product is something that you will end up very proud off if you try to outsource it. And you're like, uh, I have a lot going on with, like, lacrosse season. So, like, could you just turn out an essay about lacrosse? No. Yeah. I mean, like, yeah, but not one that you want. Not one that will do you any good because the cross doesn't mean the same thing today. And so they really does need to be a collaborative process. If it's going to display that authentic self that you talked about, if it's going to be like I said the story that only you can tell if you're going to be calm the kind of hero that the admissions committee roots for and that the adventure that they want to choose
spk_1:
46:03
If somebody wants to get in touch with you, wants to work with you along those lines or even just reach out to you for questions, how can they reach you?
spk_0:
46:12
Uh, my e mail addresses on my website. So my website is just north star editing dot com. Ah, and like I said, my email address is right there. But it's also pretty easy. It's just Michael it or start editing dot com. Ah, so, yeah, if you have questions, by all means reach out
spk_1:
46:28
awesome. And Michael has generously offered a 10% discount on any of his packages. If you use the coupon code, dominate d o M i n a t e. So this has been a fascinating conversation to me. I've learned a ton. I hope you the listener, have some fuel for thought As you think about crafting your own story, understanding that you have a golden opportunity. It really is an opportunity in my mind to write these essays. It's an opportunity for you to tell the admissions officers things about you that are important, why you deserve to be in their school and go beyond the other pieces of your application. So it's a huge opportunity. I hope you have gained something from this conversation, Michael. Just kind of a final thought any any other little pearls of wisdom or final thoughts or any other tidbits you would want to share Before we sign off,
spk_0:
47:19
we'll sue e I mean, just a za parting thought, Uh, I tell my students all the time that there's there's a story about mark 28 that I really love. Ah, so I think everyone probably knows who Mark Twain was at this point. But we're talking about like the guy who wrote Tom Sawyer. Huck fan. Ah, very celebrated American author. At the height of his fame, I was probably the most famous working writer in the country. There was a magazine that had a two page piece by another author fall through right before their print deadline, and they cleverly, I think, reached out to Mark Twain and said, Hey, we need two more pages of content before we go to press. If you send us anything, literally, anything, we don't care what it is, we will run it. And so, like, the benefit to Mark Twain is like he gets an additional publication credit for whatever he has lying around, and they get to claim they have something from Mark Twain, which is surely better than having nothing at all, or like picking something rushed by Lester author like Rush by Mark Twain is clearly the better option, and so they try to telegram him this offer, like anything at all to pages in the next two days. Ah, like That should be too hard, right? Like you can do this. And he writes back according to the A possibly apocryphal story, uh, no can do to ages. Two days can do 30 pages, two days for two pages. Need 30 days s. So I really loved that story. Because if you sit down to try to write 500 words or like any predetermined target like if you have that target in mind, you're probably going to spend some time warming up like clearing your throat more or less, and then you're gonna have a chunk in the middle. It's probably valuable. And then you're gonna realize I met like 4 25 Only need to kill 75 more words, and I'm where I go. Ah, so writing 500 final draft quality words in a single sitting is unrealistic. No one can do it. Mark Twain couldn't do it if Mark Twain couldn't do it. I certainly can't do it. I've been at this for 10 years. I probably have a little bit of experience on you. Eso Mark Twain couldn't do it. I can't do it. It's not realistic to hold yourself to that standard, either. If you have figured out how to write 500 final draft quality words in a single sitting, please get in touch. I will pay you to teach me your secrets. But in the event that you are trying to write something that you really care about, my best advice to you is right more than you need over multiple sittings. Keep coming back. Keep we just, like, have a word document open and every day Sit down. An ad like this is what this story means to me. Because every time you come back, you're gonna think of something a little bit different. And then when you have, like 2000 words, you can choose the best 500 rather than the 500 that happened to come to mind first. So right more than you need. Keep coming back. Keep working at it and your writing will get better. That's not just for application essays. That's something that I recommend for any writing that you ever have to do.
spk_1:
50:44
All right, Well, thank you very much. You heard it here first. Guys get started now. Get started early. It is never too early to start thinking about your application essays as you have questions about that, reach out to Michael Northstar editing dot com. Michael, Thank you for your time, for your wisdom. All afford staying in touch with you, obviously moving forward and go do This week's from the mailbag. Question comes from Connor Donnelly, one of my students who sent me an email just a few days ago, and he asked Quote, I am looking for more reading comp practice questions. Where can I go? That's a good question, Connor. Thank you for submitting it, and I have two answers for you. The first answer is that really former passages from official sources are the best, and that really applies to anybody listening. If you're looking for practice questions, seek out the official guides for whichever standardized test you're taking. In Connor's case, I know he happens to be studying for the G R E. And so obviously, the official guide to the G R E is a great place to start. I know in Connor's case, he had already done all of the questions in that book. There's actually Connor, a supplement to that guide for both quant and verbal and the supplement I think It's called the official G R E. Verbal reasoning practice questions book all post a link to it in the show. Notes There are similar guides like that for the G. Matt for the S A. T. There are a ton of practice test for the S A T. It would be hard to do all of the reading comprehension passages in every single practice test of the S A. T. There are so many of them likewise for the l set. And so seek out those official sources and for you, Connor. I would start there, check the show notes for that link. A second resource for you guys, though, and one of my former students turned me on to it a couple of years ago, and I think it's been fantastic. I've referred it to a lot of students. I've gone through it myself, and it's a website called read theory dot or GE so, as I mentioned and I'll post that link in the show notes read theory dot or ge It is not specific to any standardized test. The questions themselves aren't necessarily exactly like the types of questions you would see on your standardized test. but a lot of them are very similar. And the really cool thing about the way the website works is the passages start short and very easy. Like, I think when you first go to the website the very first passages, like 1/3 grade reading level passage with a fairly simple question. But here's what you do. You read it and quickly answer the question. You get it right. And then here's what happens. The next question or the next passage they give you is actually harder. And then hopefully you get that one right? Right. It's 1/4 grade level question, and then you get 1/5 grade Level one. And in the span of just getting a few right answers, all of a sudden, the questions and the passages get progressively harder. And eventually you can absolutely get up to college level and even graduate level passages, the types of passages and corresponding questions that you may see on your particular standardized tests. So if you're just looking for a fund website to kind of pass the time when you're sitting on the couch or when you're looking for some extra stuff to read, that's a good Web site to check out as well. So Connor, start with that official guide supplement for the verbal section and then check out read theory dot org's. I think you'll find it helpful. Alright, here we are. At the end of another episode of the Dominate Test prep podcast, I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Michael Multi Meyer. I hope you really learned some important things about crafting and telling a valuable story that will resonate with the readers as part of your application essays. And so today's action item is tied to that. At the very end of the interview, you heard Michael talk about how it takes time to come up with 500 hypothetically, but somewhere around there, final draft caliber words for your essay and that you should start early. So that's what I'm Kurt encouraging you to do right now and get out a piece of paper, open a word document like Michael suggested and start taking notes. Start jotting down ideas for stories that you can include in your application essays. Now, even if you aren't even thinking about that part of your application yet, you're just 100% focused on the s a T or the g r e or whatever test you're studying for. That's okay, because someday and that day will come sooner than you think. It will be time to start thinking about that, those essays. And so if you already have a list of potential stories, that will really, really help you. And so here's what I would encourage you to. D'oh. Write down a minimum of 10 potential stories to include in your essay and then explain why. Why it matters. As you heard Michael talk about so 10 potential story topics and why they are important to you. I remember years ago listening to a webinar with a copywriter, a copy writing coach named Marie for Leo when she said that any time she sits down to write a headline for a blogger post or YouTube video, or even just the subject line of an email, she always writes 20 variations, and she says, I know that sounds like a lot, but here's what happens. My 19th and 20th ideas usually end up being the best ones, the ones that I end up going with. And what if I had stopped at number 14 or 15 right, Because once those creative juices get flowing and you start playing with wording and you know, magic starts to happen. So I'm not asking you to come up with 20 stories, just 10. But I think if you go through that creative process and you start brainstorming your life and thinking about which stories would really get across who you are and what's important to you and why you would be such a good asset to the program or school you're applying to, I think putting in the time to come up with a minimum of 10 potential stories will prove valuable for you. And then, of course, you can flush out those ideas and craft a compelling essay when it comes time. So So there you go. You have your marching orders. Have a wonderful week. You know how to reach out to me. Dominate test prep dot com and I will talk with you again next week on the Dominate test prep podcast. Take care, everyone
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