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.
Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it.
A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.
For example, “I love my mom. She’s my best friend. We share clothes and watch ‘The Real Housewives’ of three different cities together” does not make for a good essay. “I love my mom even though she makes me clean my room, hates my guinea pig and is crazy about disgusting food like kale” could lead somewhere
While the personal essay has to be personal, a reader can learn a lot about you from whatever you choose to focus on and how you describe it. One of my favorites from when I worked in admissions at Duke University started out, “My car and I are a lot alike.” The writer then described a car that smelled like wet dog and went from 0 to 60 in, well, it never quite got to 60.
Another guy wrote about making kimchi with his mom. They would go into the garage and talk, really talk: “Once my mom said to me in a thick Korean accent, ‘Every time you have sex, I want you to make sure and use a condo.’ I instantly burst into laughter and said, ‘Mom, that could get kind of expensive!’ ” A girl wrote about her feminist mother’s decision to get breast implants.
A car, kimchi, Mom’s upsizing — the writers used these objects as vehicles to get at what they had come to say. They allowed the writer to explore the real subject: This is who I am.
Don’t brag about your achievements. Instead, look at times you’ve struggled or, even better, failed. Failure is essayistic gold. Figure out what you’ve learned. Write about that. Be honest and say the hardest things you can. And remember those exhausted admissions officers sitting around a table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.
10 Things Students Should Avoid
REPEATING THE PROMPT Admissions officers know what’s on their applications. Don’t begin, “A time that I failed was when I tried to beat up my little brother and I realized he was bigger than me.” You can start right in: “As I pulled my arm back to throw a punch, it struck me: My brother had gotten big. Bigger than me.”
LEAVE WEBSTER’S OUT OF IT Unless you’re using a word like “prink” (primp) or “demotic” (popular) or “couloir” (deep gorge), you can assume your reader knows the definition of the words you’ve written. You’re better off not starting your essay with “According to Webster’s Dictionary . . . .”
THE EPIGRAPH Many essays start with a quote from another writer. When you have a limited amount of space, you don’t want to give precious real estate to someone else’s words.
YOU ARE THERE! When writing about past events, the present tense doesn’t allow for reflection. All you can do is tell the story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Some beginning writers think the present tense makes for more exciting reading. You’ll see this is a fallacy if you pay attention to how many suspenseful novels are written in past tense.
SOUND EFFECTSOuch! Thwack! Whiz! Whooooosh! Pow! Are you thinking of comic books? Certainly, good writing can benefit from a little onomatopoeia. Clunk is a good one. Or fizz. But once you start adding exclamation points, you’re wading into troubled waters. Do not start your essay with a bang!
ACTIVE BODY PARTS One way to make your reader giggle is to give body parts their own agency. When you write a line like “His hands threw up,” the reader might get a visual image of hands barfing. “My eyes fell to the floor.” Ick.
CLICHÉS THINK YOUR THOUGHTS FOR YOU Here’s one: There is nothing new under the sun. We steal phrases and ideas all the time. George Orwell’s advice: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
TO BE OR NOT TO BE Get rid of “to be” verbs. Replace “was” in “The essay was written by a student; it was amazing and delightful” and you’ll get: “The student’s essay amazed and delighted me.” We’ve moved from a static description to a sprightlier one and cut the word count almost in half.
WORD PACKAGES Some phrases — free gift, personal beliefs, final outcome, very unique — come in a package we don’t bother to unpack. They’re redundant.
RULES TO IGNORE In English class, you may have to follow a list of rules your teacher says are necessary for good grammar: Don’t use contractions. No sentence fragments. It’s imperative to always avoid split infinitives. Ending on a preposition is the sort of English up with which teachers will not put. And don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction like “and” or “but” or “because.” Pick up a good book. You’ll see that the best authors ignore these fussy, fusty rules.Continue reading the main story