Developing a Theme for Your Application

When you’re applying to competitive colleges, you need something that sets you apart from other applicants. This might be a special skill, an interesting characteristic, a unique experience, or even a circumstance beyond your control. One way to express this is through a personal metaphor in your essay. If you can come up with a defining metaphor that manifests throughout your application, you’ll be able to express your character more clearly and give colleges a better sense of who you are. This can tie your personal qualities and accomplishments together in a way that is more likely to resonate with admissions committees. Read on to learn how you can come up with a personalized metaphor for your essays that will set you apart.

How Can You Use a Metaphor in Your Essays

A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things, tying something—an experience, a person, a thing, a place—to something else. At first glance, the comparison might seem unrelated but when the two ideas are juxtaposed, a new meaning emerges. Unlike a simile, your description doesn’t use “like” or “as,” so the comparison is more implicit. You might also use an analogy, which is similar to a metaphor in some respects. An analogy is another type of comparison, but instead of demonstrating how two things are completely similar, it highlights how two particular characteristics of those things are comparable, and often does use “like” or “as”. “I’m as tired as the day is long” is an example of an analogy, because rather than totally comparing oneself to the day, the speaker is focusing on one particular characteristic in each thing being compared—being tired and the length of the day.

 

In a metaphor, the comparison becomes a symbol to represent a larger experience or circumstance. Metaphors are commonly used as literary devices. For instance, Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players.” This is a quintessential example of a double metaphor, in which the stage represents the world, and players represent all the people—the implicit idea being that life is really a performance.

A metaphor can be a strong device to use in your college essays, but you’ll need to keep a few important considerations in mind. You’ll need to choose something unique to stand out, and describe it well. Use imagery and other rhetorical devices to frame your metaphor. Be descriptive. Also remember that admissions committees read many, many essays. While your experience doesn’t have to be completely unique, the way you describe it does. And you certainly don’t want to write an essay with overused clichés. Colleges have seen hundreds of essays describe how winning a sports game is like conquering life obstacles. Don’t be that person!

Consistency and cohesiveness are also important here. Choose something and stick to it. Don’t try to pack too much into a single thought, because then the metaphor might become too much of a leap. “I’m like bird, because I’m quick on my feet, adventurous, and like to sing” has too many elements. Try to focus on a particular thing—such as an adventurous spirit—and draw it out with examples, anecdotes, and imagery.

Thinking About our Pre-College Experiences Through the Lens of a Metaphor

You don’t have to climb Mount Everest to develop a meaningful metaphor. Colleges care more about how you describe and frame your experiences than the experiences themselves. However, you’re probably not going to find much inspiration from the Sunday you spent watching TV on the couch, so you should make an effort to seek out experiences that inspire you. To start, try pursuing something off the beaten path that interests you over the summer. For example, you might volunteer in another country, take on a unique internship, or gain experience in a profession you plan on pursuing. You might, then, use an aspect of the experience—say, animals you encountered in the wilderness—to highlight the new experiences and adventures you seek out in life: “Seeing a lion on a safari in Africa made me nervous at first, but I soon realized the fear came more from the unknown than the threat the lion posed to me.”

Or, on the flip side of this example, if you’ve had a particular struggle, is there a way to paint a metaphorical picture about it?



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Making Your College Application Cohesive

Don’t stretch to hard to fit everything into the metaphor you choose, and don’t try to pack too much into it. You don’t want to make admissions committees have to work to understand what you’re trying to convey. For example, “Working with my teammates to defeat the rival school in football taught me collaboration conquers all” is a bit of a reach, not to mention cliché.

 

To help you come up with something that defines you and your experiences, make a list of your best qualities and what defines you as a student. Additionally, ask friends, family members, and teachers what they think of when they think about you. Then, make a list of extracurricular activities or other interests you’ve pursued, and try to determine the qualities from the first list each activity brings out. Select one that best exemplifies your personal experiences to write about in your essay. It’s also a good idea to think about particular experiences and anecdotes to illustrate the activity. Also think about imagery you associate with the activity. Does playing piano make you feel peaceful? What other images are associated with peace? Perhaps it transports you to a beach or some other calm setting. Is there a particular time when this feeling was exemplified during a performance or recital?

If you have a particular passion, describe why you love it and what you’ve done to hone and pursue it. Show colleges why it’s meaningful to you. Maybe you’re a writer and have participated in writing programs, contest, and clubs like the school newspaper. Is there an image that comes to mind that illustrates how you’ve made writing your focus?

If you can think of a literal object that works well with your talents and experiences, then great. You could also use a single event or activity to show who you are more generally. For example, you might use debate club to show how you feel like a small-time version of a Supreme Court judge. “One time, when I argued the merits of the public-school system, I pictured myself in a real courtroom, presiding over a trial that would determine the fate of Americans.”

Remember that consistency is key. In Well-Rounded or Specialized?, we explain how it is important to demonstrate passion for a particular specialty or area. Having that passion will help you develop your metaphor, because you will naturally have a theme to exemplify.

Final Thoughts on the Admissions Metaphor

A metaphor is an impressive way to capture the attention of the admissions committee. Remember, you want them to sit up and take notice, so you need to draw them in right away.

Also keep in mind that it’s not just about what you say, but how you say it. While having a solid academic record is important, you need to demonstrate that you are unique. That doesn’t mean you have to have had a unique experience. You might have a particularly insightful or interesting way of describing or looking at something—and that makes you unique! Plus, being able to describe the events of your life or your goals for the future through the frame of a metaphor is one way of showing that you are capable of thinking of general trends and patterns in life in a creative way.

Looking for help with your college applications? Check out our College Application Guidance Program. When you sign up for our program, we carefully pair you with the perfect admissions specialist based on your current academic and extracurricular profile and the schools in which you’re interested. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a completely crazy activity (although if you’ve gone skydiving, by all means, write about it!). As long as you’ve had experiences that are meaningful to you, the way you describe them matters more than the experiences themselves.

 

 

Your personal specialist, who is currently attending a top university, will help you with branding, essays, and interviews, and provide you with support and guidance in all other aspects of the application process. Learn more about the program here.

 

 

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Laura Berlinsky-Schine

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in Creative Writing and minored in History. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and works in publishing. She also writes, dreams of owning a dog, and routinely brags about the health of her orchid.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine