Jul 30, 2012
How To Write A College Essay
Posted in: Miscellaneous
Listen: writing well is hard.
It is hard for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it is hard because you don't know your audience and have to guess. Sometimes it is hard because you have a lot of stories tripping over each other to get onto the page. Sometimes it is hard because, no matter how smoothly you try to form your sentences, they invariably tumble out of you, all stiff and angular like a box of bent pipes.
But being able to write well is important. You will never encounter a situation in which obfuscation is to your advantage. You will frequently encounter situations where crisp, compelling writing can express your feelings, make your case, even save lives: Edward Tufte argues that the Challenger disaster could have been prevented if only the case against launching had been made more clearly.
While (hopefully) no lives are riding on your college application essays, this is a great time to revisit some of the rules of writing well.
George Orwell's Politics and the English Language is my personal guide to thinking about writing. The theoretical foundation he lays in this piece - about the importance of language, including writing, in shaping how we are capable of thinking - he later built upon in 1984.
Read this essay. Read it closely, read it carefully. It will change the way you think about writing. I keep Orwell's rules for writing next to my desk always:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Now, in this essay Orwell took issue primarily with contemporary political propaganda. As he wrote:
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party line." Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.
But the same is true for college essays, as Orwell doubtlessly would have realized if he were reanimated and handed him a sheaf of Common Applications. The sad truth is that most college application essays are not very good. When I say they are "not very good", I mean they are either boring, impenetrable, melodramatic, or all of the above.
The single greatest scourge of college application essays is the advice dispensed by books with names like "50 Winning College Essays from Ivy League Students." Everything about these books, from the titles on down, is so suffused with self-congratulation that it should be no surprise the essays themselves stink like bad perfume. Hint: These books exist because people at name-brand schools realized they could sell aspiring applicants drafts of their essays. They do not, as a rule, provide actual good advice. If anything, they simply reproduce the "lifeless, imitative style" of orthodoxy against which Orwell railed.
Orthodoxy runs deep. Last year I was traveling with a colleague from Yale. He had recently spent a week on a reservation helping Native American students navigate the college process, and he had been shocked by the degree to which the cliches and tropes of college essays had penetrated into their world. As he told me, the essays his students - who had lived vastly different lives than most mainstream applicants - were writing were indistinguishable from those written by applicants in southeastern Connecticut. They were composed of billowing clouds of "my global perspective" and "future potential as a leader" and "desire to leverage my education" to bllllllaurhfhasklafsafdghfalkasf.
Do not do this. Do not allow your essays to descend into an impenetrable bulk of buzzwords and banality. You are an interesting person. Your essays should be yours. This is best described in How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose, by Vince Gotera of the University of Northern Iowa, which was my guide to writing my essays when I applied to graduate school.
Consider, for example, Gotera's comparison of two hypothetical introductory paragraphs for a master's program in library science:
I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the University of Okoboji because as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with books. Since I was eleven I have known I wanted to be a librarian.
When I was eleven, my great-aunt Gretchen passed away and left me something that changed my life: a library of about five thousand books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian.
As Gotera says: each graf was 45 words long and contained substantively the same information (applicant has wanted to be a librarian since she was a young girl). But they are extraordinarily different essays, most strikingly because the former is generic where the latter is specific. It was a real thing, which happened to a real person, told simply. There is nothing better than that.
So let me save you the trouble of buying any of those books and close by quoting Kurt Vonnegut's seven rules for writing well, which are as applicable to college applications as they are to writing everything else:
- Find a subject you care about.
- Do not ramble, though.
- Keep it simple.
- Have the guts to cut.
- Sound like yourself.
- Say what you mean to say.
- Pity the readers.
Specificity, clarity, and brevity are your keys. Use them to unlock the writer inside you.
Unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your essay. Make sure that the glimpse you give the admission committee into your character, background, and writing ability is the very best possible. Here are seven tips to help you focus and make the most of your application essay.
In our experience, the main worry that applicants have is that their essay won’t stand out. This is a legitimate concern as you will likely compete with numerous applicants who have backgrounds similar to yours. Therefore, follow these tips to ensure that your essay shines in the competitive admissions process.
1. Analyze the prompt thoroughly
Take three minutes to think about the prompt. If needed, divide the prompt into phrases and look at each aspect. Why would the admissions officers ask this prompt? What do you think they want to know? How does that information relate to your ability to excel in college? Next, leave the prompt for a while and then return to it. Do you see something new?
With so many other things in your schedule, this process can initially seem like a waste of time. However, it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If you later realize that you misread the prompt, you might need to start the writing process from scratch.
2. Organize your writing
Like the first item, this isn’t something that should take a lot of time. This is another step that can initially seem completely skippable, but organizing your writing can save you considerable stress and frustration. A good writing plan can streamline or even eliminate the need to do any significant rewrites.
Brainstorm your anecdotes. Create a rough outline, including approximately how long each paragraph needs to be in order to complete the essay within the word count limits. Finally, figure out when you’re going to write. A paragraph a day? The whole thing next weekend? Creating a schedule, even if you need to modify it later, gets your brain in motion.
3. Show instead of telling
When selecting anecdotes for your essay, pick vivid ones that you can tell succinctly. If a story would require 450 words of a 600 word essay, then you’re not going to have a lot of space to express self-reflection and analysis of the situation. Remember that the admissions officers are more interested in your perspective of what happened than the events themselves.
In addition, keep in mind that the admissions officers don’t know you personally, and that’s why they’re reading your essay. They want to get to know you, and the essay is your first introduction. Because of this, don’t tell them that you’re passionate about public service. Show them through strong examples. Help the admissions officers envision each example as if they’re experiencing the situation alongside you.
4. Know your vocab
Your admissions essay should reflect command of college-level vocabulary. One of the most common mistakes that we see in essays is using advanced vocabulary almost correctly. Even among synonyms, there are shades of meaning. If you’re using a thesaurus, look online for examples of that word in action. Will it still fit into your sentence?
Avoid overdoing it. Advanced vocabulary should be the spice of the essay to give it flavor, so you’ll use plain language most of the time. Essays that are riddled with advanced vocabulary can seem pompous or even inadvertently comical to the reader.
5. Write succinctly
Can you say what you need to say in fewer words? Can you substitute an advanced vocabulary word for a phrase? Writing concisely expresses to the admissions officers that can organize your thoughts and that you respect their time.
6. Combine like ideas into more sophisticated sentence structures
The vast majority of the sentences in your essay should be compound, complex, or a combination of both (compound-complex sentences). Save simple sentences for instances when you need to create impact.
7. Seek qualified second opinions
You should absolutely ask others to take a look at your essay before you submit it. As we work on things, we become blind to mistakes that will be glaringly apparent to others. However, limit the number of people you ask to two or three. Asking too many people for feedback will only confuse you and result in a lower quality essay as you revise the essay according to each person’s advice. Therefore, look to individuals who have background and expertise in the college admissions process.
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