Essay Lessons from the Multiverse

A Reflection on Everything, Everywhere, All at Once and the College Essay

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022), so if you haven’t yet seen it, see it (it’s a masterpiece!) and then come back.

In one of the alternate realities that Evelyn Quan (played by the always impressive Michelle Yeoh) experiences after a Matrix-style awakening to the existence of an infinitude of alternative timelines, humans have hotdogs instead of fingers. As it phantasmagorically explores hundreds of these would-be historical divergences, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (henceforth EEAAO) will revisit what I shall hereby dub “the weinerverse” numerous times. The scenes are nothing if not unique, memorable, and perhaps a little bit disturbing, though without ever being offensive. Indeed, while there is something viscerally off-putting about watching them, I’ve found them to be by far the film’s most indelible images.

So it is with this rather grotesque image of hotdog fingers that I want to share some thoughts: not on the film—though it will serve as an important touchpoint for this reflection—but on college essays. As I write this, college essay season has recently come to a close, undoubtedly to the great relief of students everywhere (incidentally, we college consultants are also relieved to bid farewell to essays for a while—much as we love them, like Christmas carols, they are delightful until they are not). One of the greatest challenges students face when writing college essays is that of embracing specificity, a subject I also address in this post. That’s no surprise, really, because writing down to the most minute detail is much harder than maintaining a comfortable, airy bird’s-eye view. The difficulty increases because in college essays, we are almost invariably writing about our own experiences, and doing so in detail depends on having an airtight memory that doesn’t come naturally to everyone (which is why we encourage our students to journal!).

Detail is what brings stories to life. It’s what makes the difference between eyes glazed with boredom and eyes glistening with tears of joy or despair. The genius of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once lies in the mind-boggling imagination that went into it (although as its many Oscar nominations will attest, the acting and direction are also first-rate!). I do not intend to dwell excessively on the image of hotdog fingers, but I do wish to point out that the very uniqueness of the idea, however odd, is what makes it so memorable, and making you—the candidate—memorable, is among the college essay’s most important tasks. This is why I often tell students to make room in the brainstorming process for their quirkiest idiosyncrasies, their most outlandish thoughts, and their most bizarre fantasies. While not all of these will be appropriate for inclusion in college essays, it is at the very fringes of our consciousness, identity, and lived reality that some of the best—that is, the most original—ideas are to be found. Indeed, it is important to remember that brainstorming, at its best, is a process of indiscriminate inclusion during which discernment, decision-making, and deletion have no place. During this process, you must have the courage to usher ideas as thoroughly ludicrous as hotdog fingers onto the page; that is, to accept absurdity as your most valuable form of capital. I can only imagine the brainstorming that went into EEAAO. Which ideas were left on the cutting room floor after it was decided that hotdog fingers unquestionably deserved inclusion? And yet it works.

Once you’ve engaged in a brainstorming process that is truly inclusive, only then can you start to winnow down to the most meritorious ideas. The first ideas to go should be the clichés. Because if the best ideas are often found at the fringes of our experience, it is equally true that ideas at the center of our lived experience tend to overlap with those of others and are thus least interesting. Recognizing cliché can be a particularly difficult operation for a seventeen-year-old, since knowing which ideas are categorically overused depends on the sort of abundant exposure that tends to come with age. So for those high schoolers reading, don’t be afraid to ask the trusted adults in your life (teachers, parents, school counselors or «ahem» college consultants) to share their honest opinions about which ideas should be dropped altogether because they’ve been done to death. But to give you an idea, here are some of the more cliché essay ideas that I’ve told students (many students!) to discard:

  • I was getting a C in math, but then I worked really hard and brought my grade up to an A. Yawn! With all due respect to the doubtless considerable effort you had to put in, this sort of experience is highly common among high school students. Forget it.
  • I broke my leg and had to quit the lacrosse (or hockey, or quidditch, etc.) team, but after months of iron-pumping physical therapy, I returned and won the big game. Nope. Not only do many high school students play sports, many athletes get injured. It’s certainly sad, and let’s face it—sometimes even traumatic—but that doesn’t make it interesting.
  • My romantic partner broke up with me but now I’m stronger. Quite frankly, breakups are the worst… essay topics. It’s a story as old as time—and one that most people will experience more than once in their lives. A variation on this is the essay about parents’ divorce: an experience that can be highly traumatic for a teenager but one that is also quite commonplace.

You get the idea—but there is one caveat. As Willa Cather famously wrote: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” That is to say, much as we must make every effort to avoid cliché, there is an extent to which it cannot be entirely avoided. The only time an essay about a cliché is ever appropriate is when you have an entirely unique take on the experience. EEAAO is, in fact, a case in point, because the premise of the film is anything but original. Indeed, the scene when Evelyn is told that she can either “turn left towards [her] scheduled audit appointment” or “turn right and go into the janitor’s closet” to determine her fate is highly reminiscent of the famous red-pill/blue-pill scene from the Matrix… which borrows from Alice in Wonderland… which is in turn inspired by Plato, who probably stole it from some long forgotten Sumerian poet. You get the picture. And yet, EEAAO’s take on the idea of multiple realities is so staggeringly original that none of that really matters. There are exceptions to every rule.

Speaking of exceptions, I’d like to share a word on the importance of honesty in the essay-writing process. Essay writing is creative nonfiction. That doesn’t mean you should lie—indeed lying anywhere on your application can have disastrous consequences (up to and including the rescission of admissions offers!). However there is a difference between lying and painting details that are true to the spirit of events. On the night you narrowly escaped death, you may not remember how the air smelled, the name of the song playing on the radio, or the exact words your best friend said to you the last time you saw her. Yet it is just these sorts of details that bring an essay to life for a reader, that allow them to live the experience alongside you as a passenger in the journey through your memory. It doesn’t matter if the air smelled like Douglas fir and you write that you remember the distinct fragrance of hibiscus, or if the song on the radio was Blinding Lights but you write that it was Save Your Tears, or that your best friend said, “See you tomorrow” and you write that she said “Au revoir!” Of course, if you say you narrowly escaped death and, in reality, you didn’t—that would certainly be a lie. But short of that, including details that you may not necessarily remember with accuracy makes your essay memorable, and memorable is what every good essay must be.

Returning to Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, there is a scene (around 1:39:04 for you cinephiles) in which we receive a rapid-fire barrage of images from dozens of Evelyn’s multiverses (one YouTuber captured them all here). Although in the original film, each of these shots lasts only a fraction of a second, they are each imbued with exquisite detail that helps the film make its point, and this brings me to my final point. Great details need not occupy substantial space. The number one complaint I hear from students when I insist that they give me more detail is that doing so will put them over the word count. Nonsense. Compelling details need not be wordy, but they can make all the difference. Like the difference between a story of a laundromat owner under tax audit, and one that gives way to multiverses where hotdog-fingered star-crossed lovers play piano duets with their toes.

Like I said: it’s weird, but unforgettable.

NOTE: This article first appeared on the website of our colleagues at Distinctive College Consulting.