Best Advice On How to
Write a College Application Essay That Rocks!

The Ladder of Abstraction” is one of my favorite writing tools, especially for writing narrative pieces such as college admissions essays. It is a wonderful way to give structure to an essay without imposing one of those five-paragraph essay formats.

“The Ladder” is a lot simpler than it sounds: Basically, it is making sure you vary your writing to go back and forth between the specific and the abstract.

The “Ladder” image means you go down the ladder into the specifics (the gritty details), and up the ladder into the abstract (the ephemeral clouds). To write well, you need to go up and down constantly.

The shifting between the specifics and the abstract makes your writing engaging and dynamic.

See if this makes more sense:

To be specific, you use details (Remember those “concrete details?”) you describe, you tell stories/anecdotes, you give examples, you use dialogue/quotes, statistics, you use descriptive language to create images, feelings, you use the Who, What, When, Where and Hows, etc.

To be abstract, you explain, you reflect, you interpret, you address the metaphorical or figurative (comparisons, similes, etc.), you are more general, broader, you explore the Why.

The specifics help you make sense of the abstract. The abstract helps you understand the significance of the specifics. To communicate effectively, you need both. To write well, go back and forth between them, zoom in and zoom out, over and over. (There is no strict rule of when you shift in writing, but in general you will see it from paragraph to paragraph.)

Here’s another way to think about the Ladder of Abstraction:

When you are specific, you SHOW the reader what you mean.

When you are abstract, you TELL the reader what you mean.

Going up and down the ladder in writing means you Show in a paragraph, then you Tell in the next paragraph, then you shift back to Showing, then again to Telling, etc. You can start an essay by either Showing or Telling, but make sure to shift right away. In essays, I prefer Showing in the introduction because that’s usually more compelling “grabber” writing.

To throw in yet another metaphor:  This process is like using a camera. When you get specific, you zoom in close to your subject so you can “show” the reader all the little details. When you get abstract, you zoom out and take in the larger picture so that you can “tell” the reader what these details mean and why they are important in that broader context.

More later…if you can’t tell, I love this approach! If you want to learn more on your own about how to use the ladder of abstraction in your writing, check out this powerful list of Writing Tools by Author Roy Peter Clark, which includes my favorite writing tips from his amazing writing guide, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.

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