Insider Writing Tips From a School That Knows Creative Writing

When I read this post by an admissions officer at Tufts University named Lee Coffin (who has been dubbed “Hip Dean”) on word limits for Common App essays, I discovered he also included some savvy tips on how to write powerful essays.

You can read the entire post called “500 Words of Less,” or this section that I’ve copied below where he focuses more on writing advice. I took the liberty to highlight what I thought were his best points.

Here’s What Lee Had to Say About Narrative Writing: 

Rather than over-thinking the word limits, focus on the narrative you are creating.  As you answer the writing supplemental and Common Application questions, what does your response tell us about you?  My niece is a senior this year (she applied early to Bates) and she asked me to read her personal statement before she submitted it.  She wrote a funny, interesting essay about her love of reading—and her passion for Stephen King novels in particular—that made me (unexpectedly) laugh out loud (a literal LOL) in several places as she imagined a blue mist swallowing cranky coupon-wielding customers at the supermarket where she works.  When she asked me what I thought, I said it introduces her to Bates as “a witty bookworm with a passion for horror.”  She smiled broadly and said, “That’s me!”  Bingo. (135)

For EVERY piece of writing you offer as part of your college application, ask yourself this question:  “What would the headline or sound bite be after someone reads this?”  Can the reader distill an image or a message that would make you say “That’s me!”  If so, you’ve done your job.  The essay adds a jolt of your personality or aspirations or passions or perspective to our understanding of who you are.  If not, keep typing.  If you’re up to the word limit, delete or modify accordingly. (87)

As your fingers pound your keyboard and your screen fills with characters, focus on what you want us to know about youDon’t flip that sentence around and try to tell us what you think we want to know about you.  It’s your story: tell it in your own words.  When given a choice (like on our third writing supplemental question), choose whichever prompt gives you the best vehicle to let your voice roar and soar.  (If images resonate more than words as a way of telling us who you are, we welcome whatever medium clarifies your persona for us.  Human narrative takes many forms: sing, draw, film or code your voice if that works for you.) (116)

If you love the musty smell of a used bookstore, tell us why old books make you happy.  If you are a liberal poet with an affinity for slams at the local coffee shop and your father is a conservative banker who thinks you should major in “something that will make a lot of money,” describe the intellectual tension that frames the environment in which you were raised.  If a double helix of DNA makes you giddy, celebrate your nerdy side.  One of my colleagues just wandered into my office to celebrate the ED applicant who said his senior superlative would be “Most Likely to be the Crazy Cat Lady Down the Street.”  I’m still chuckling.  Sometimes a sense of humor goes a long way. (This one is 125; combine the last two paragraphs and it’ 241, still under 250.)

Think of the various short answers and essays as ingredients.  Each adds flavor to the recipe that is your application.  (Does this metaphor work?)  If the dish needs more zest, find a way to add something new by rolling the dice a bit with one of your answers.   In turn (at least at Tufts), the admissions officers will never roll our eyes if you take a leap and go somewhere unexpected.  (Tufts is that kind of place.)  (77)

Be playful.  Be daring.  Be creative.  Above all, be true to yourself.  Authenticity counts.  We know what a 17-year sounds like when she writes.  (Yes, I’m talking to you, Mom.  Don’t over-edit your child’s voice into vanilla pabulum.) Stay within the word limits but don’t get distracted by that instruction.  And let’s be real: if we didn’t give you any limits you’d be howling at us about how many pages you should write.  (This penultimate paragraph is 73 words, easily within the 50-100 range if I were [the subjunctive tense!] answering “Why Tufts?”)

As you race towards the deadline, write what you want to write.  Then save it.  Reread it.  Imagine a headline.  Let the ideas steep like a good cup of tea.  Edit it.  And then submit it.  And if you’re daunted by the command to use “500 words or less,” remember that you probably text more than that in a single day. (61)

And may the word count be ever in your favor. (10)


MORE ABOUT LEE COFFIN. He sure sounds (and writes) like a great guy who “gets it,” and you would be lucky if all college admissions officers were this smart, caring, enthusiastic, open-minded and had his sense of humor.

Lee Coffin

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions/Wordsmith/Green Thumb/Puppy Whisperer

My colleagues call me “Hip Dean.”  I’m not sure if that’s a reaction to my affinity for pop music, GQ, organic gardening and mid-century style (think Mad Men) or if it’s their polite way of saying I don’t act my age.  Maybe it’s a little bit of all those things. But here’s the rub: just because I’m the dean of admissions doesn’t mean I must surrender my sense of whimsy.  I am an optimist.  I am irreverent and playful but I’m serious when I need to be.  I love word play (puns make me giggle, even if they’re maligned as the lowest form of humor) and word games (Words with Friends is so addictive…) and I laugh at my own jokes.  I hope my blogs capture that defining aspect part of personality as I muse about the “inside” dimensions of this “mysterious” process I lead.