Using First Person on Application Essays Vs. GMAT/GRE Essays

There’s a longstanding rule for actors on stage or in front of a camera–never break the fourth wall. The literary equivalent of that for journalists and novelists is that the writer should never appear in his or her story. First-person columns notwithstanding, most stories are generally better told from the perspective of an objective reporter rather than a vested narrator. The reason for this is simple: people, by and large, are compelled by reason and detail, not personal opinion.

Nowhere is this truer than the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) portion of the GMAT/GRE. For both essays, you want to avoid the first person at all costs (“I believe…”, “My experience…”, “For me…”). Without exception, you will be deducted one full point for using the first person on an AWA essay. (Remember, on a six-point scale, one full point is a lot!)

To illustrate how the first-person sentences that sound so spellbinding in your head come across so inert to the reader, let’s conduct a little experiment. Read the two fictional accounts of a reporter writing about a White House briefing below:

No. 1: I felt, as most of the reporters in the briefing room did, that President Obama delivered a boring and tired speech. Some of us even felt it was delivered extemporaneously because it lacked his typically polished oratorical verve. I don’t think he got much sleep the night before and I suspect that he’s getting tired of trotting out the same old campaign promises and repackaging them as goals of his administration.

No. 2: President Obama, delivering his third speech in as many days, appeared road-weary and haggard ambling into the briefing room; his eyes seemingly averting the assembled press corps–as a hung over employee’s would his bosses’ when walking in late after tying one on the night before. His speech, replete with overused platitudes about resuscitating the economy and restoring middle class vitality, felt overly rehearsed and stale—at some points even to the President himself.

Both of these accounts attempt to make the same argument—Obama fell flat on that particular afternoon. But which one packs more punch? That is, which one makes the stronger argument? Most people would agree that the second contains more firepower. But why? What is it about the second account that makes it more persuasive?

In a word, reason. The second one has it, the first one doesn’t. The first one relies on what “I” think and what “I” saw and what “I” suspect. Know this: readers don’t give a shit what YOU think or what YOU believe; they want to make their own decisions and draw their own conclusions, just as you would. So don’t rob them of this experience. Your job is merely to supply the facts. The second one gives them the facts:

  • Three speeches in three days.
  • The president doesn’t look sharp, like a hung over employee avoiding his boss (analogies can be effective when executed well).
  • The speech contained same banalities we’ve already heard.
  • The entire scene lacked energy.

At this point the reader can draw their own conclusions. Remember, people don’t care as much about what you think as why you think it. Expert writers disappear from the story as quickly as they’ve entered it, leaving you only with…the story. Journalists, particularly those at the more high-toned publications—NY Times, The Economist, et. al.–accomplish this invisibility most convincingly.

Incidentally, if you review it, nowhere in this article will you find any hint of the writer—as it should be. Write your AWA essays on the GMAT/GRE the same way. Additionally, if you do a word count you will find that this article contains between 500-650 words, roughly the suggested length of your AWA essays.

So, to recap…wait! We almost forgot–one more thing: the application essay. It is, after all, in the title to this blog, right? Well then, we wouldn’t to shortchange you without at least mentioning it. It’ll be quick–ready?

None of the advice above applies to it. Seriously. No, seriously!

On the application essay, the exercise is very much a personal account. The adcoms want—desperately—to see “you” on those essays, so definitely include your perspectives, feelings, thoughts and emotional narrations about whatever life events you decide to write about. Big difference here, folks–overlook it at your own peril. The GMAT/GRE is rewarding your ability to craft an argument. Not so with the adcoms. They are looking to reward your ability to charm them by sharing who you are.

Ok, now to recap:

  1. To get a high score on the AWA, avoid first person and focus on the argument you’re making.
  2. Keep your essays to about 500-650 words.
  3. Personal statement essays should read like a journal entry—“I’s”, “My’s” and “Me’s” everywhere.

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