I recently worked with a young woman who was applying to nursing school. She had asked me to edit her personal statement, which is the most important piece of a graduate school application.
Many students who apply to medical or nursing schools–or to a Ph.D. program–have straight A’s and impressive qualifications. The one piece of the application that enables them to stand out from all of the others is their personal statement.
So it’s important to get it right.
Anyway, the directions for the assignment clearly asked applicants to explain what makes them an excellent candidate for the program. In doing so, the school asked them to limit their essay to 3 double-spaced pages while responding to four major topics:
- Their career goals
- Experiences that have prepared them for a career in nursing
- How their background, education, and other experiences have developed their potential as a leader
- How their life experiences will add diversity to the student cohort
My client wrote her essay and then sent it to me for editing. I saved it to my computer, opened it up, and began reading. My first thought was “Huh?” Instead of responding to the first question, she had opened her essay by putting readers into the middle of a scene that took place in a foreign country–with no introduction or preamble.
Although her experience was impressive and definitely set her apart from other candidates, I was totally confused.
Furthermore, the story continued for a page and a half, leaving only 1 1/2 pages in which to respond to all of the other questions. And the answer to the first question–about career goals–was completely buried in one sentence in the middle of a paragraph at the end of page two!
If my client had been writing a novel, opening in the middle of a scene could have worked. In a 3-page essay that needed to address 4 questions, however, it didn’t. In other words, my client needed to stay INSIDE the box: responding in the best, most concrete way she could to what was asked of her.
I immediately arranged for a telephone interview with her and then spent an hour asking her very specific questions about her background, motivations and experiences. Then I wove these details into the essay while rearranging the presentation of elements so that they responded–exactly–to the directions.
Once it was basically done, the essay ran onto page four by a few sentences. My client asked me if we could convert it to 10-point type to make it fit on three pages, but I said “No.” The admissions people would have seen the tiny font and realized we hadn’t taken the time to follow their directions. So I went back to the essay and trimmed and refined it all down to three pages.
The final version not only told a remarkable story, but it also answered all of the questions while weaving in numerous concrete details (and some emotion, too). In other words, like flowers inside a planter box, the essay had form, structure, depth and beauty!
Not just for students
Writing inside the box is the best choice for many other kinds of communications, too. Examples include professional articles, press releases, website content and more. In fact, most types of business-to-business writing require that a piece adhere to a specific structure.
Some things to keep in mind are:
- Don’t make your readers guess. Respond to their underlying questions and expectations as clearly and precisely as you can.
- Present your information in a logical, step-by-step order. (The exact order to use depends on the requirements of the communication you are writing.)
- Use concrete details.
- Use emotion.
In other words, tell a story!
For more information about the structure of a story, download All Writing Tells a Story, my free ebook on storytelling for business and academic writers.