Why sports talk radio?
I live in L.A., so I live in my car. On the 110, the 91, and sometimes the 405. Driving in silence sedates me. NPR makes me feel smugly informed, but beyond that, I'm not sure. And I can only sing car karaoke for so long. That leaves me with sports talk radio. Until yesterday, I didn't think sports talk radio had any value other than killing time as I watch cars vie for position. (From what I can tell, the goal is either to gain that one-car length advantage by cutting someone else off or rage at the person who increased your commute time by 5 seconds by cutting you off.) But actually, sports talk radio has a few lessons for anyone trying to write application essays. Here are my favorites:
Lesson #1: Say it in 10 seconds.
One segment I liked from Max and Marcellus is when they give the caller 10 seconds to make his point. Many responses start with a stumble of "Uh, yeah, so I wanted to talk about..." Others meander off into convoluted sentences, never to make their way to the realm of clarity. But occasionally, I'll hear a concise insight that has me nodding in appreciation, like "The best deal the Lakers made was the player they didn't trade: Pau Gasol." Or something like that.
Can you say your essay in 10 seconds? If you can't tell me in 10 seconds what your main point is, guess what? You probably don't have one. Figure it out. You'll need to have an answer in mind for interviews, too, so this question isn't going away.
Lesson #2: Don't say, "Hi, how are you?"
Max hates this, and so do I. The listener doesn't want to hear dozens of callers say the same thing. It's monotonous. Stop wasting time on pleasantries, and get to your comment!
When you open your essay, forget about all the build-up, all the background information of how whatever important moment came about. You just don't have space for that. Get right to the important moment right away, and start your essay there.
Lesson #3: Have a take.
I don't enjoy Jim Rome's self-congratulatory recaps at the end of interviews, but at least he holds his callers to high standards. He's always reminding callers to "have a take." That is, don't just say the same old thing about the same old topic, like how Kobe shoots too much (or how he doesn't shoot too much). Say something we might not know, like why Kelly Slater's a great surfer.
When you're thinking about your topic, ask, "What would most students write about this topic?" The answers that immediately come to mind are probably (not always, but probably) a good clue about what not to write. If it's occurred to you in 2 seconds, it's probably occurred to hundreds of other students in 2 seconds, too. If you want your essay to set you apart, then you want to find an aspect of your topic that's not 2 seconds obvious. That's what it means to have a take.
Lesson #4: Be passionate.
If you've ever listened to Petros and Money, you know Petros (yes, a Peninsula High School graduate) gets fired up about everything, whether it's his USC Trojans, a film fight, or a sleep sheep. This type of enthusiasm evokes two different responses from me. First I feel scorn because someone cares so much about something trivial, and because I'm a jerk. Then scorn yields to respect. Someone who goes all out for something he thinks is important is usually someone I can admire.
When you're writing your essay, convey your passion, like Petros. One of my sisters was making fun of my excitement about writing my essay ebook. She said I should call it a manifesto. I declined (too communist), but the flavor of the word manifesto is exactly right. A manifesto holds ideas worth writing down, arguing over, and fighting for. I'm not sure what the opposite of a manifesto is, but I'm pretty sure we wouldn't react the same way if Marx had entitled his work "The Communist Manual" or "The Communist Syllabus." If your essay doesn't touch on a part of your own personal manifesto, or whatever you call it, then you're wasting your chance.
Lesson #5: Have a consistent message.
ESPN is a message machine. ESPN radio hosts mention articles from the ESPN website, and they interview ESPN TV personalities. I don't know the official lingo for this approach, but ESPN uses each platform (radio, internet, TV) to promote the others, and, more importantly, to promote the ESPN brand.
You should think of each aspect of your application (academic info, activities list, essays, etc.) as a separate platform. Taken together, these platforms should reinforce your message, your description of who you are. Your academic info, like SAT Subject scores might reveal what you enjoy, and you can echo that in your choice of majors and in an intellectual vitality essay. What accomplishments and details you choose to include in your activities list reveal your priorities. And, of course, when all that's done, you should be asking, "What important things haven't I said yet?" Your answer to that question is a great clue about where to go with your essays.
Well, if nothing else, I've come up with an after-the-fact justification for listening to sports talk radio. I hope these comments have given you some insight into how to handle your essays. If you're looking for more essay guidance, take the next step:
Good luck writing!
Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.