Toni Morrison and the Perfect College Essay

(Originally published August 12, 2019)

How one of America’s bravest voices teaches us to nail the dreaded personal statement 

“I’m a believer in the power of knowledge and the ferocity of beauty, so from my point of view, your life is already artful – waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art,” Toni Morrison, 2005, graduation address at Princeton University

As public figures, universities, and people all around the country mourn the loss of one of our nation’s proudest literary voices, I am struck by the way Toni Morrison speaks to the heart of what is critical, exhilarating, and truly challenging about the college admissions essay. With the brief assertion, “your life is already artful,” Morrison reminds the struggling high school senior that the point of the college essay is not to determine what an admissions officer wants to read, but to determine how to show the art that is you. 

So as students across the nation face this daunting challenge, let’s seek some advice from this most remarkable American voice. 

“You are your best thing”  (Beloved, 1987)

Before you panic about an essay topic or worry that you have nothing to say, remember that the goal of the essay, and indeed of your application, is to introduce yourself. This fact should bring some relief. You’ve lived for years with your teachers, family, friends, talents, and struggles. All of that experience makes you a full, complete, interesting human. Trust me! I’ve taught hundreds of teenagers, and I have never met one who is not a full and interesting human. So take confidence in the knowledge that you do not have to manufacture or pretend significance. You have significance. The challenge — and I know it is a challenge — is to figure out how to explain it all on a page. It is tough to do all that in 650 words.

So trust yourself. Spend some time thinking about what experiences, interests, or opinions are central to who you are. Colleges are trying to get to know you — so let them. Whether you are talking about your proudest accomplishment or your toughest failure, if you always come back to yourself, you will be fine. Make sure your essay stays in your voice. Make sure it tells a story you think is 100% true to who you are. Talk about your growth, your joy, your triumph, or your struggle. You are your best thing; let colleges see that. 

“It is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power”  (1993 interview)

First drafts are rough. That’s why we call them rough drafts. One of the trickiest parts of telling your story in a college essay is the instinct to tell too much story. Often, we think that in order for a reader to understand where we landed, they have to understand exactly where we started. One of the most common pieces of feedback I offer students on college essays is that they are telling the story chronologically rather than focusing on the lessons learned, the analysis, the growth. Do I need to know that you started gymnastics when you were six in order to understand the dedication required to face your 5-day a week morning practices? Probably not. Do I need to hear about the 8th grader two years ahead of you who always had the lead in the school play? Probably not. 

Your college essay is a snapshot of who you are right now — as a learner, thinker, community members, and perhaps as an athlete or artist. Clear some of the dust from your essay by eliminating too much focus on your actions and activities pre-high school. Avoid spending too much time on other people’s stories. This is your story. What you choose to tell has power. 

“As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think”  (1998 Interview)

Dream a little. Many of us approach our college essays (and later on, our job applications and cover letters) from a place of fear and anxiety. So nervous that we may not find the right fit, or the college may not have room for our particular version of semi-intellectual theatre kid who wants to save the world, we look at this essay as a wall to be climbed, a puzzle to be solved. “If I can JUST find EXACTLY the right way to explain how INCREDIBLY special I am … maybe they’ll be convinced.”

What if we left that fear behind? What if each time you thought about how to start a new essay, you stopped to dream a bit? “Tell us in no more than 250 words why you want to be a student at [insert college name]?” Dream a little. Can you see yourself cheering at a women’s basketball game? Do you picture yourself sitting in class with one particular professor who inspired you on a campus visit? Do you wonder if you could find those friends who also love thinking about what the robots of the future might be like? Both in this essay and when you walk on campus, you will find great solace in dreaming. Imagine how lucky this university will be when you bring your brain, your spirit, and your talent to their campus. And as you gain the power and trust not only of a successful college essay, but college credits and eventually a college degree, like Toni Morrison, stay brave and keep dreaming.