It is hard to look at Aaron, Nick, Nigel and Zach Wade -- all four accepted to both Yale and Harvard -- and see anything other than a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, a Haley’s Comet in the world of college admissions. I am confident that the odds of a similar success are low. Extremely low.
I am also confident that while “quadruplet” is the kind of quirk that gets attention, none of the brothers was accepted to any college simply because he was part of a package. Each student had the grades, the test scores, and the non-academic activities to be a good candidate at any school. In other words, the Wades were not unlike tens of thousands of accomplished students seeking spots at top colleges.
Like most students, Aaron, Nick, Nigel and Zach understood the value of a standout Common Application essay. Eager to differentiate themselves, they labored over their college essays. Each one fretted over the choice of topic and abided by a truth enunciated by Ernest Hemingway: “The only kind of writing is rewriting”. Multiple drafts and hours of effort brought each Wade to 650 words that distinguished him not only from his brothers but also from any other applicant.
What might others learn from the Wades? Anyone who takes the time to consider their essays, which are posted on the New York Times website, will find four shining examples of three simple principles.
Identify a True Trait
Surely “My Life as a Quadruplet” was a no-brainer topic for a college essay. Not so much. Four brothers applying to the same schools – in addition to Yale and Harvard, all applied to Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt and Ohio State – raised the reasonable concern that admissions officers who read all four essays would tire of “yet another” essay about the quadruplet quandary. The “quad thing,” I said, was intriguing but insufficient.
The better first step was to dig deeper. Janine Robinson, the author of “Escape Essay Hell!” advises students to begin the college essay process by identifying a “defining quality”. I do the same, preferring the term “true trait,” which I define as a force that guides your life. Each of the Wades, like any applicant seeking to make an impression, needed to narrow the theme of his essay to a characteristic that represented his values and his goals.
The Wades’ stories had common roots. “We were four boys who shared one face,” wrote Aaron. A similar sense of forced anonymity inspired each student to become more than “one of the quads”. So each brother wrote about his search for individuality, a journey that is common to many if not most high school students.
Tell a Story
Another reliable rule is to choose the essay structure most likely to have an emotional impact. Far too many students write expanded versions of resumes. Others try to make their case with a five-paragraph essay. By contrast, a narrative structure, a form familiar to anyone who reads novels or watches movies, creates space for the personal details and emotional moments that feed admissions officers’ genuine desire to see applicants as more than numbers on a page. Asked how students should approach college essays, Jeff Brenzel, a former Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, said, “Keep it simple. Tell a story.”
Zach Wade wrote a story about carving out an identity as a discus thrower on the track team. Nigel traced the path from the day his father brought home an oversized book on human anatomy to the birth of his decision to become a doctor. Nick’s story traced his interest in Arabic all the way to a scholarship to study in Morocco. Aaron wrote about an unease that died the night he danced and sang Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” to a standing ovation at his school’s talent show. Using material available to high school students everywhere, each brother brought himself to life by crafting an essay with an intriguing introduction, a meaningful middle, and an emotional ending.
Trust Your Voice
A third essential of college essays, a distinctive voice, befuddles students, who wonder what admissions officers “want”. Students search for the style they believe will please the people with the power to admit or deny. The process of writing multiple drafts further muddies their language. Sentences written on a sunny Monday may not sync with those scribbled Sunday at midnight, which gives essays a choppy feel.
To the Wade brothers I offered a simple solution: read your essay aloud. When spoken, anything else written simply to impress will sound awkward. Noting the spots where the language loses flow, and inserting phrases that roll off of your tongue, is the best way I know to infuse an essay with the kind of distinctive voice that tempts colleges to say “admit”.