The Devil in the Details by Jon French

The Devil in the Details by Jon French

Picture this: You’re an admissions officer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Just this semester you’ve read nearly a hundred essays by talented students from different backgrounds. Within that one-hundred essays, how many of those students do you imagine have participated in Model UN? Eighty? Maybe. Of those one-hundred essays, how many students do you think have participated in sports? Seventy? Ninety? Maybe. How many of those one-hundred essays to Northwestern University feature a student who loves Street Fighter II, refuses to listen to Madonna, and can’t wait to become a social psychologist?

That’s what I thought too.

A college essay that stands out lies within the difference between “ice cream” and “Cherry Garcia,” between “a red car” and “a 2001 Monte Carlo,” “an old movie” and “Gone With the Wind.” While I’m sure most of my students are tired of hearing me remind them to “be more specific,” it’s one of the easiest ways for your authentic voice to come through your essay, allowing you, the author to stand out.

Let me give an example:

“After I talked to the lady at the box office, I was so sad to find out the tickets for the concert were sold out.”

Could you have written that sentence? Of course, you could have. I hope you don’t have to because I want you to go to the concert, but, the point is, any number of people could have written that same idea, that same experience, in the way it’s expressed. What happens if I add just a little bit more specificity? (that’s a fun word):

“Sold out,” she murmured.

Zeynep, the short-haired teenager working at the TicketMaster kiosk, could feel my heart sink as I realized I’d never see Billy Corgan live.

Could you have written that sentence? Could that exact experience have happened to you? Maybe, but I’d be hard-pressed to believe that you also had the experience of talking to

1. …A woman named Zeynep…

2. …who worked at a TicketMaster…

3. …as you attempted to purchase tickets to see The Smashing Pumpkins’ front-man, Billy Corgan…


The point is this: one of the things that makes hearing about other peoples’ experiences captivating, meaningful, and entertaining is believability, the idea that you can actually understand the logic, the conflict, the situation because it clearly had to have happened. When I tell students “nobody is boring” they usually roll their eyes and think I’m playing motivational speaker. What I mean is that as long as students choose to write about an aspect of their life that is meaningful to them, people, and more specifically, admissions officers, will remember those essays as real, unique, and memorable.

An essay, like any work of art, doesn’t have a secret formula for success—I’ve read essays about students who save lives, but the essay falls flat because even though the story has incredible potential, I’m not emotionally invested in the individual telling the story.

The bottom line: Adding specific detail to your essay adds voice, and by adding voice you’re engaging your reader on an emotional level.