Essay Wisdom

Fresh from editing early application essays, I am tempted to share thoughts about writing them. Here are fourteen insights, in no particular order, enjoy!

Essay writing is a reflective process. Trust me, when the prompt reads “Tell us about an experience that…” it is not the experience they want to know about, it is you. How were you affected by the experience? What did it mean to you? How have you changed as a result?

Since people don’t generally reflect on things they don’t care about it is obvious why it is so important to write about something you do care about. Something you can be insightful about.

It does not have to be a big and momentous thing! A student’s short essay response to “your cultural background and identity” was, frankly, bad. It was totally uninspired and its 100 words did not ring true. Sure enough, he could care less about his Greek heritage. But he loved his last name. Imagine a Greek last name… it is going to be recognizable and unique; two qualities that he truly appreciated. His new essay was a joy to read and conveyed his individualism.

The college essay is not a five-paragraph essay for English class. Write as you would talk (though be grammatically correct and don’t even consider using swear words). Use dialogue, combine short sentences with long sentences, ask questions, there is no limit. The goal of which, in addition to answering the prompt, is to engage the reader and make the reader like you. Honestly. Which leads to a couple of oft-repeated pieces of advice students receive: “Just be yourself.” and “Show don’t tell.”

  • Almost…be your best self. I don’t need to hear about your desire to sleep in until noon. And, I don’t want to hear of lingering doubts or fears, or anything remotely negative.
  • How the heck do I “show” in an essay? By telling a story, being specific, and trusting the reader will get the point. Stating that you are compassionate, or creative, or have initiative falls flat. But telling a story or referring to a detail that demonstrates compassion or creativity or initiative conveys who you are and you need to trust that the reader will get it. (Analogies are a wonderful tool as well).

Your story is about you -- your experiences, your thoughts. So, why would I tell you to avoid using the words I-me-my? Because the reader knows that the essay is about you and overuse of those words quickly lead to sounding completely self-absorbed. No one is attracted to a self-absorbed individual! Your goal is for the reader to like you.

Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Assume that you are the 49th essay of the day and it is 10:00PM when they sit down to read your essay. They’d rather be heading to bed! So, ensure the first sentence is one that grabs their attention and makes them want to keep reading. Whenever you possibly can, write in the present / active tense. It is much more engaging to be involved in the story than to read about what has already happened.

After brainstorming, when you sit down to write, make your first draft two times the word count before editing it down to a tight essay with no extraneous or repetitive thoughts. Then, have 5-6 people read it – some who know you well and some who do not. Don’t look for editing necessarily (essays written by committee are not going to sound compelling) but ask this question “Could you please describe the person in the essay?” Their responses, in total, will tell you whether you have conveyed the person you intended to convey. 

Clearly, essay writing is not a one-sitting job. Figure on 4-5 drafts. But if you are writing about something you actually care about, and you give yourself the time to work on it, it can be fun. If not fun, certainly rewarding.