THE “APPLICATION ESSAY” SCHOOL OF INSTITUTIONAL ADVANCEMENT
Looking for advice on how to improve communications to your constituencies? No need to search very far, either on the Web or in a bookstore. Yet most of the advice is limited to mechanics: word choice and sentence structure. Little advice is available on creative development. Which is too bad, because it’s not always easy to identify the “good story” or the “best angle” in getting an advancement message across. And it’s not always obvious how to structure the telling for best effect.
For high school seniors, on the other hand, there is no lack of creative development advice on the writing task they face: the college application essay. As a former college admissions consultant, I was one of those advice-givers. I always started by asking the student to zero in on the topic, the angle, and the structure. And I gave advice that, now that I think about it, holds true for anyone trying to sway readers toward a positive decision. Take a look and see if you agree.
Know your audience. Understand when and how a reader will see your words. For college applicants, I would paint this scenario: “Imagine a bleary-eyed admissions staffer sitting on the sofa at home. A bag of chips is on one side. A stack of essays, to wade through by morning, is on the other. It’s 1:00 am. The reader is going to make a fresh pot of coffee ‘just as soon as I finish this essay.’ That essay is yours.”
For institutional advancement and communications officers, I simply turn the tables: “Envision a glassy-eyed high school junior, after trekking around at a college or graduate school fair, coming home with a tote filled to the brim with viewbooks and travel pieces. Imagine it’s 10:00 pm, and Mom (or Dad) says, ‘Before you shove that bag under your bed and let it sit for two months, just take 15 minutes to go through and pick out a few pieces to look over.’ The last one that prospect picks up before stuffing everything back into the bag is yours.”
Know your competition. If you’re going to distinguish yourself from the competition, you need to know what they’re doing, what they’re saying, and how they’re saying it. Only then can you figure out what it will take to set yourself apart from the rest of the field.
Reward your audience. Once you’ve gained readers’ attention, don’t waste their time. Get to the point. Offer something worth reading. Tell them something they don’t know. Entertain or inspire them. Move them to action. Remember: Nobody owes you a read-through. So when somebody sets out to read your stuff, make it worth their while—to the end.
Keep it simple. The simplest stories are often the most powerful. So excise the extraneous. Draw the reader in quickly. Structure the piece to heighten interest, paragraph by paragraph. And give closure.
Make it authentic. Your personality—both that of the institution as a whole and the individuals who make it unique—should shine through. Whether the piece is a college essay or advancement copy, its audience needs to “hear” the voices of real people behind it.
Taken together, these simple precepts go a long way toward improving institutional messaging.