Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Kamaljith KV.

Do you watch The Voice?  No?  Your loss, girlfriend. We do, and it's taught us a lot over the years.

One of the things you quickly notice is that it takes more than just a great set of pipes to make the cut -- after all, there are way more top-notch singers than there are opportunities for said singers to make ends meet. And in the end, on a competition show, there can be only one. So how do you make the choice between two singers, equally qualified, equally driven?

Go to the backstory.

That's what the producers of the show do every day. They plumb the depths of family history, trying to ferret out those little nuggets of gold that take a competitor from being just another voice in the crowd to an unforgettable story echoing across the hills.
What's all this got to do with essays?

Simple. You may not have a producer, but you are on a competition show. It's called applying to graduate school. And you'd better not be thinking that a couple of mindless sound bytes about your professional accomplishments, film festival placements or showy shadowing experiences are going to set you apart from the pack. On the contrary; they're likely to bury you inside it even more deeply.

What is unique about me?  This is a question that many people find terrifying. Understandable -- it's extremely nerve-wracking to stand out. It's not easy being different. But it is important, when writing essays, passing outlines to recommenders, shooting videos and prepping for interviews, that you have a sense of yourself, and one of the best places to start looking is your own family tree.

Start with the basics. What did your father do for a living? Your mother? Who was your primary caregiver? Where did you grow up? How big of an extended family did you have? How close are you to your brothers and sisters, in age and in mindset?  What role do you play in the family, and who was your role model?  Do you pride yourself on being the same, or different, from the people who surround you? 

These questions, and the dozens of others like them, serve as the root of your identity. You are not your numbers, nor are you your resume. You are the amalgam of the influences that have shaped you over the years. Whoever raised you, their values and beliefs are imprinted on you, unconsciously, most likely, so it's important that you be able to enumerate what the heck they are!

Develop a hypothesis. It's not enough to assemble facts. People need stories to make sense of the world, and you will need a story to understand what your childhood meant to you. It may be a profound story, or a rather simple one. It may have a happy ending, a sad one, or the story may be in process (unfinished). That's fine, but you still need to understand what it is. In a paragraph or two, start assembling the various data points into a cohesive narrative. I am the son of two immigrants, who taught me to work hard and with integrity. I am the wild child of a brilliant family, and I have spent my entire life so far looking for somewhere to belong. I am the overachiever who no one expected to go anywhere, least of all my alcoholic mother. There are no wrong answers, and no right ones. Only true ones.

See your family as characters. Write brief physical descriptions of them, like you were describing a stranger. Try to simplify their personality into two or three basic ideas. Give the world a thumbnail sketch of the people who were in your life, and it'll go a long way to helping them understand you.  

Write fearlessly. The greatest enemy most people face in the essay writing process is their own reluctance to speak, clearly and forcefully, about the things they have seen, done and overcome. You can turn this weakness into a strength if you are willing to open up, willing to accept imperfections in yourself and those you love. There are no saints, no perfect people, so why pretend that you and your loved ones just happen to be the exception?

***

This is just the beginning of your journey. Writing about family doesn't just make for a great essay or two, it can also be the beginning of new clarity about who you are and why you do what you do. And, if you can carry a tune, it might get you on a stage in front of a panel of celebrity judges. So sharpen your pencils and get to work (and if you get stuck, call).