Monday Morning Essay Tip: Try an Anecdotal Approach

Many candidates choose to take a straightforward, historical approach to their personal statements. This can be an easy way to organize an essay, but this approach may also lead candidates to ignore possibilities for a more focused and gripping introduction. Although nothing is fundamentally wrong with taking a historical approach, under certain circumstances, an anecdotal approach can better maintain the reader’s interest. (This all comes down to execution, of course—a strong writer could effectively execute either approach.)

Example 1: Historical

“When I graduated from NYU with a finance degree, I eschewed Wall Street and pursued my own distinct path; I opened a flower shop in midtown New York, never imagining the challenges I would face as I strived to bring in new customers and locate products around the world. With time, I learned to advertise selectively (on billboards in local office buildings) and developed relationships with suppliers, particularly one in Peru, with whom I obtained an exclusive on Heliconia flowers. After one year, we started to specialize in foreign flowers and, with a niche identified, we developed a strong client base. My firm stabilized and I was no longer bleeding cash to support my 11 employees; we were cash flow neutral and contemplating a new location.”

This introduction, which is historical in nature, is very direct and informative, but involves almost no drama or emotion. To be more effective, the writer might instead consider positioning him/herself as “the hero” and drawing the reader in with some anecdotal tension.

Example 2: Anecdotal

“My hand quivered as I signed a lease for 1,000 square feet of retail space in midtown New York. Two months later, I flung open the doors to my flower shop and was stunned when I did not make a sale until my third day. Admittedly, I began to question the wisdom of entrepreneurship and wondered if I should have joined my peers from NYU’s finance program as an analyst on Wall Street instead. However, each day, a trickle of customers came in, and more often than not, they commented on the colorful and rare flowers in my window, like the Peruvian Heliconia, exclusive to my shop. Within weeks, I had core customers picking up scheduled orders and referring friends; I bolstered this ‘word of mouth’ with select advertising on electronic billboards in the four 50-story office towers surrounding the shop. Soon, I noticed a surge of customers and was no longer bleeding cash. After one year, we were cash flow neutral, and I was even contemplating opening another location.”

In this version, the same information is conveyed, but the tension inherent in the “quivering hand” and the empty store act as a “hook” that draws the reader in. By taking this more personal, emotional and indeed anecdotal approach, the writer allows the reader to identify with his/her struggle and thus maintains the reader’s interest.

Again, this is not a case of right or wrong. Each candidate should decide what works best in his/her own essays.

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