Want to Write a Great Admissions Essay? Look to the Wedding Toast.

Struggling to complete your admissions essays? Think back for a minute and consider the last few weddings you’ve been to. If you’re lucky, you only have witnessed great wedding speeches and toasts, but odds are that you’ve sat through at least one or two bombs. What accounts for the difference?

While your first answer might understandably be, “It’s how comfortable the person is about delivering speeches in front of large groups,” I don’t really think that’s the case. Yes, no one wants to watch the poor guy stand up there and sweat bullets as he fumbles with a piece of paper covered in smeared ink, mumbling into the microphone for what seems like an eternity. Delivery matters, no doubt.

However, content outshines delivery almost every time. Here’s one common culprit that’s made more than a few wedding toasts bad: The speaker just focused on cracking jokes, and left you scratching your head as to who he is, what he has to do with all of this, and why he chose to tell that embarrassing story about the groom. Although he probably thought it was funny, you were checking your watch (or your iPhone; this is 2011, after all), wondering when was going to finish. He didn’t connect with you, and you ended up caring about him or his relationship with the lucky couple no more than when he started.

Now think about the ones that you have enjoyed. Even the most nervous toastmasters deliver good speeches when they’re willing to get a little personal. The good speakers reveal a little bit about themselves, and in doing so they help you get to know them a bit better. They share a vulnerability or concern that we’ve all felt at some point, and everyone shares a small appreciative chuckle. They present a side of the bride and groom that you’ve never seen before (and actually want to see). They make you care a little more. They connect with you.

A great speaker — just like a great admissions essay writer — doesn’t need to leave them rolling in the aisles. Humor helps, but only to the extent that it helps to present and accentuate personal stories that make you feel like you now know the person on more than a superficial level. A great admissions essay works in the same way. It doesn’t focus on devices and gimmicks; it just delivers a message that the reader will leave the reader saying, “I really enjoyed that. He seems like someone I’d like to get to know more.” Whether you’re talking about what matters most to you (… and why), or discussing a time when you failed as part of a team, or discussing where you see yourself in your career ten years from now, this same yardstick applies. Taking a chance and putting a little bit of your self “out there” is the difference between a bore of an essay and a terrific one.

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