The Top Student=Bad Essay Paradox

College Application Essays

How to Stay On Top of the Heap

For some reason, “top students”–aka high achievers, go-getters, A-types, test-takers, straight-A students, you know who you are!–often have the hardest time writing these essays. At least really good ones.

Don’t get me wrong. These students are the ones who know to start early on their essays, and put a lot of effort into them. Their writing is usually technically “clean” of errors, and they probably would get an “A” from their English teachers. The problem is many of their essays are either on the dull side, or come across as trying too hard to impress or make them sound a bit full of themselves. This is not good!

Here are some of the reasons for this top student=bad essay paradox:

1. “Top” students often have a hard time trusting that a casual, narrative style produces an engaging, powerful essay. Instead, they stick to a formal, academic style (like the 5-paragraph essay); use too many long words; downshift into the passive voice; write overly long, descriptive sentences; cram in the adverbs. Many students (not just these “top” ones) often break into the dreaded English-ese (See my attempt at a definition below.). Take a writing Chill Pill to strike a more conversational tone and find your true writing voice.

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Essay Rocket Fuel: The Anecdote

College Admissions Essays

How to Write an Anecdote

For Your College Application Essay, Personal Statement or other Essays

If you can write an anecdote, you can write a powerful essay.

But a lot of students don’t know what an anecdote is, let alone how to write one.

It’s really just a weird word for a little story or animated description of something that happened.

Usually they are very short.

If done well, they make excellent introductions for all essays since they grab the reader’s attention.

In essays, an anecdote is an example of a point you want to make that uses a little story or animated description.

Example: You want to make the point in your essay that you are a creative person.

So you write an anecdote to illustrate your point: You could describe something creative that you made, or you could describe yourself making something interesting.

Like this:

During a walk near my home, I found a long stick that looked like the letter “Y.” I smoothed the surface with sandpaper and covered it with blueberry blue paint I found in the garage, then wrapped it with twine and colored yarn. From my junk drawer, I tied seashells, a couple old keys and a bent fork to the ends and hung it in my room.

“What’s that?” my little sister asked.

“Art,” I said, even though I wasn’t even sure what I had made.

(Then background your interest in art, how you think about it, why you value it, how it has affected you, changed you, and what your plans are for it in the future…)

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How Far Will You Go for A Great Essay Topic?

College Admissions Essays:

 Don’t Try to Impress!

I just read an interesting article in the New York Times about how high school students are seeking out exotic trips, usually to foreign countries, mainly so they will have an intriguing topic for their college application essays.

(Article copied below)

I think these trips can be amazing, and that students learn a lot about other places, cultures and themselves.

Yes, GO!!

But if you are lucky enough to take one of these trips, the last thing I would do is plan it so you can write a snazzy college admissions essay.

I actually believe this approach can backfire.

An instant turn-off to essay readers is a student who is trying to impress them.

To avoid sounding over-privileged, students should look for essay topics that focus on everyday subjects, often called “mundane topics.”

Every time, the essay about a summer job where a student flipped pancakes at IHOP or washed dishes or sold shoes turned out so much better than the one where they went to Africa and lived in mud huts or helped farmers in Guatemala pull weeds.

For some reason, the more basic topics feel more authentic and are naturally more interesting.

And the writer comes across more humble, and likable, even.

That’s not to say that you can’t write a fine essay about a cool trip abroad.

My advice is that in your search for a topic, don’t consider the trip itself the topic. Instead, focus on one thing that happened on that trip.

Focus your essay on a specific experience, and just let the trip to the cool place be the background.

That way, the college folks see how adventuresome you are, but you can focus your essay on something more specific and meaningful. College admissions folks want to learn about how you think and what you value.

So it’s not so much where you were or did something, but what happened, how you handled it and what you learned in the process. That’s why scooping gelato, parking cars or walking dogs can make more interesting topics than your travels around Timbuktu.

Read my Jumpstart Guide to get started on your college admissions essay!

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Jumpstart Your Personal Statement! All You Need is a Juicy Problem!

College Admissions Essays:

How to Start Your Core College Application Essay

 

If you are writing a college admissions essay that responds to a prompt that asks you to tell about yourself, or about “a time,” or describe a quality, background, interest, identity, talent, characteristic, experience or accomplishment (such as The Common App prompts or Prompt #2 for the UC app.), then your essay is also known as a personal statement.

The most effective personal statements are written as narrative essays, meaning they relate an experience using a story-telling style.

To share an incident or moment from your past, you only need two components to make a story: a character and a conflict.

So one magic way to create a personal narrative is to search your recent past for a conflict. (You are the “character.”)

Thinking back to English class, remember that conflicts can come from many different places—from within yourself (internal: you have a personal issue or hang-up that caused you pain or trouble) to outside yourself (external: something happened to you.)

To put it simply, a conflict is a problem.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes.

They do not need to be traumas or a crises, although those can work, too.

(HINT: Basic, everyday problems work best! Check out this post about “mundane” topics.)

Here are other words for a conflict or problem: challenge, failure, obstacle, mistake, hang-up, issue, a change, dilemma, fears, obsessions, etc.

Examples of conflicts or problems: you are shy, competitive, stubborn, were bullied, are obsessed with Twilight, didn’t make the team, got injured, have big feet, frizzy red hair, smile too much, someone quit at your work, don’t have own car, can’t spell, adhd, ocd, don’t eat meat, perfectionist, slob, lazy, drunk driving, have a mean grandparent, no money, etc…

Man, there are a lot of problems out there! But for the purposes of writing these dreaded essays, that’s a good thing for once!

Once you remember a juicy problem, follow these steps:

1. Describe the time you had a problem or describe a strong example of your problem.

(Include what happened and how it made you feel. Try to start at the moment it hit, or happened for the best impact!  Include the 5Ws—who, what, when, where and why! Stick to one or two paragraphs.)

These mini-stories are also called anecdotes, and you can learn more by reading my post on how to write an anecdote.

RELATED: My Video Tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One

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Before You Push the Button

College Admissions Essay

 

College Admissions Essays:

 How To Fine Edit Your College Application Essay

You are finally finished with your essay. It’s time to copy it into the online application and send it off. You’ve worked hard. Why not make sure it’s fabulous? Follow this checklist to double check that it’s as good as it should be:

  • Read your prompt (the question) one more time. Often a prompt will ask you to answer more than one question, or address several points. Make sure you address or answer them all!
  • Did you make your point? (Yes, that’s the same thing as your “main point.”) You should be able to state it in a sentence or two. And it should be stated somewhere in your essay as well. If you can’t do this, chances are your essay is too broad, and too broad means boring.
  • Do you prove the (main) point you are making in your essay? Did you provide examples as “evidence”?
  • When you give examples in your essay, or describe something, are you specific? Use details!

read more…

So stressed you can’t even start? Let me talk you down…

public domain

College Application Essays:

They Are Easier Than You Think!

A friend just told me his daughter was not going to apply to the UC (University of California) schools because she would need to write two college admissions essays.

Instead, she was going to stick to the Cal state schools, which don’t require essays.

What a tragedy, I thought.

These aren’t that hard to write!!

Here’s what I would say to try to change his mind, and tell his daughter:

These college application essays (also known as personal statements) don’t have to be perfect.

Shoot for mediocre if it takes the pressure off. Just find a little story to tell about yourself, something that happened one time, and pound it out.

Stick to the first person; describe what happened.

Then, explain what it meant to you, how you thought about it, what you learned, how it changed you (even if just a little bit.)

Voila! An essay!

That’s it!

Of course, if you can go back, re-read it, take out the boring parts, amp it up with colorful details, cut extra words, carve out a main point, read it out loud,  listen to the flow, find a nifty metaphor to life, allude to interesting ideas, fix it up, work on it—you will have an even better essay.

And did I mention all my other informative posts on this blog are designed to help you write a killer essay?

(Look for specific topics in the “Find Help By Topic” listing on the right.)

Check out my super helpful Jumpstart Guide to help get you started on your college application essay or personal statement!

The Catch-22 of College Admissions Essays

It feels like a set-up. First, you are supposed to reveal how wonderful you are in 500 words–about the number you can cram onto a postcard in your teensiest handwriting. Second, you must sell yourself to the college of your dreams—setting yourself apart from the thousands of other equally wonderful students–but appear humble and likeable at the same time. Third, no one has ever taught you how to write this type of essay, called a personal narrative. No one. Ever!

I call this impossible challenge the Catch 22 of College Essays, at least the part about saying how great you are and staying meek at the same time. You know, make an impression but don’t dare try to impress anyone!! No wonder you are stressed out!!!

The best way to handle this challenge–and I have detailed how to do this all over my blog–is to stick with a story. And it doesn’t have to be a life-changing, mind-blowing event, either. In a weird way that I don’t quite understand, the less impressive the story—the more basic, simple, everyday, mundane it is—the better it will go over. (Learn more about the power of mundane topics.)

Here’s how it works: When you tell your story, you naturally show the reader about yourself. You can avoid that awkward tone of voice that sounds boastful when you describe yourself: I’m a really creative person. I’m really passionate. I’m really great at solving problems. For some reason, when you hear someone say something like that, your first reaction is to think, with great sarcasm, “Oh, you are, are you? Well, good for you!” Whereas, if you just describe the time you built a ten-foot sculpture out of driftwood, feathers, dryer lint and goat hair, the reader might think, without a hint of sarcasm, “Wow, that’s pretty cool. That girl sounds creative.”  See the difference? More on Show, Don’t Tell.)

I know I’ve hammered on this, but find your anecdotes, your examples, interesting moments, and just describe what happened—and then examine what you learned from them. It’s hard to go wrong with a story.

Read this post on How to Write an Anecdote to get started telling your best stories!

Catch22.jpg

How much can you take?

This might be overkill, but a company called EnglishClub.com posted an entire, online crash-course in writing college admissions essays on their site. It claims to be from a professional essay-writing service (EssaysEdge) that you would pay big bucks to use. Click on the car crash for the course:

You don’t necessarily need to read or work the entire course, but click on topics that might help you. I thought their advice on writing conclusions, “Conclusions: Do’s and Don’ts” was pretty solid.


http://www.englishclub.com/writing/college-application-essays/index.htm

Revenge of a Tortured English Professor

If you have time, this essay (How to Say Nothing in 500 Words) is packed with invaluable advice that will help you make your college essay sing–and NOT bore those college admissions folks. An English professor wrote it in the 1960s after reading probably a zillion mind-numbingly dull essays during his long career. It’s long–and ironically a little yawny in places (revenge?)–and I mainly skimmed it for the juicy stuff.

Here’s one of my favorite parts, from the section called, “Slip Out of That Abstraction,” that describes why you should “show” instead of “tell” your points, and how to do it:

Look at the work of any professional writer and notice how constantly he is moving from the generality, the abstract statement, to the concrete example, the facts and figures, the illustrations. If he is writing on juvenile delinquency, he does not just tell you that juveniles are (it seems to him) delinquent and that (in his opinion) something should be done about it. He shows you juveniles being delinquent, tearing up movie theatres in Buffalo, stabbing high school principals in Dallas, smoking marijuana in Palo Alto. And more than likely he is moving toward some specific remedy, not just a general wringing of the hands.

It is no doubt possible to be too concrete, too illustrative or anecdotal, but few inexperienced writers err this way. For most the soundest advice is to be seeking always for the picture, to be always turning general remarks into seeable examples. Don’t say, “Sororities teach girls the social graces.” Say, “Sorority life teaches a girl how to carry on a conversation while pouring tea, without sloshing the tea into the saucer.” Don’t say, “I like certain kinds of popular music very much.” Say, “Whenever I hear Gerber Sprinklittle play ‘Mississippi Man’ on the trombone, my socks creep up my ankles.” By Paul McHenry Roberts.

(I also highlighted the strong verbs Roberts used here. In your college admissions essays and personal statements, go easy on the adjectives and adverbs–the ly’s–and push hard on those gritty, action verbs!)

Still Stuck? Here’s a Quick Brainstorm Guide

College Admissions Essays

A Step-By-Step Guide to Telling Your Story

 

Step 1: Write down 3-5 “defining qualities” about yourself.

Think of how one of your parents would sum you up to a stranger.

My Julie, why, she’s creative, ambitious, caring and has a mean stubborn streak. (You can use short phrases, too. “always tries hard,” “takes risks,” “is a fast study.”)

Step 2: Take one of those qualities and try to think of a time–it doesn’t have to be earth-shaking and probably only lasted about 5 minutes or so–when that quality was challenged, or formed, or tested, proven, or affected/changed.

HUGE HINT: Think about a problem, or an obstacle, conflict, challenge or some type of trouble, that involved you and that quality.

Step 3: If you can find an interesting moment, incident, experience or story to convey about a time when things went wrong for you, BINGO, you could have found a great topic!

ANOTHER HUGE HINT: The incident does not have to be when you fell off a cliff or were hit by a car.

Problems can take many forms, including a personal idiosyncrasy, or phobia, a challenge, or something (big or little, real or in your mind) that tried to stop you from doing something you wanted.

I will stop here. But in a nutshell, you can now relay the problem (in story form, called an “anecdote”) and then explain what you learned, and why, by dealing with it.

Yes, it’s a bit formulaic, but this might help you get going. Read my other posts, How to Write an Anecdote, Show don’t Tell, and Mundane Topics for more great advice.

Have you written your “shitty first draft” yet?

Ok, time is up. Well, almost. As long as you can quickly identify a couple of strong topics for your essays, there’s still time to pound out good ones.

Here’s the best advice I know on writing first drafts, from one of the best writers out there. A quirky woman named Anne Lamott (check out her picture at the bottom!). Ignore the weird hair. She’s THE BEST.  Read on:

“For me and most of the writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” Anne Lamott, from the best book on writing, called Bird by Bird.

“All good writers write them (shitty first drafts). This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. …” more from A.L. and Bird by Bird.

Okay. Do you love her? Despite the potty language–or because of it–she’s spot on. To move forward, you have to take a good idea, get a simple plan and sit down and write it out. It won’t be great at first. That’s just how it goes. Then all you do is go back, and fix it up.

DO IT!! If you need help getting going, check out my Jumpstart Guide.

here’s anne.


College Essays Are Like Mini-Memoirs

I just read a memoir where the author shared a piece of writing advice that Toby Wolff gave her.  Wolff wrote “This Boy’s Life,” one of the best memoirs out there. Anyway, memoirs are books written about yourself. In a way, college essays are like mini-memoirs. They could easily be a chapter in your own memoir, especially if you share a story in your essay.

All that said, here’s the little nugget of advice Toby Wolff gave the author, Mary Karr. (He sure looks believable to me!) It’s almost too simple to appreciate, until you try writing about yourself:

Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit…Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed…Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Take no care for your dignity. Those were hard things for me to come by, and I offer them to you for what they may be worth.

(A quote from Toby Wolff in the memoir entitled, “lit,” by Mary Karr.)

To me, the little secret in this advice is to just tell your story in a straightforward, honest way and a lot of your message or meaning or lesson will be naturally revealed. In other words, don’t try too hard to teach or preach your message.

Hope that’s not too heady. Like a lot of simple-sounding advice, it’s harder to do than you think. But worth trying.

I just found this link to a wonderful blog on college admissions sponsored by the New York Times, called “The Choice.” Here’s a post from another writer talking about how these essays are really like  memoirs!

http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/essay-as-memoir/#comment-58117

Forget the 5-paragraph Essay

 

It’s time to let go of the 5-paragraph essay format that most English teachers have pounded into your DNA by now.

College admissions essays are very different from the formal academic essays you wrote in high school.

How?

Well, most are called “personal narratives,” which use the first-person to tell a story or explore a personal insight about yourself or something you value. The majority are written in a more casual style (tone, voice and structure).

Like the 5-paragraph essay, however, they still need to make a “main point,” and they require a structure, although one that is much looser.

Here is one simple technique that can give your essay a structural “spine,” yet keep it engaging and breezy in style.

It’s called Show and Tell (not to be confused with the writing axiom, “Show, don’t Tell.”)

It’s really a simplified version of another writing approach I outlined in an earlier post, called The Ladder of Abstraction.

This is how you do it:When you write, make sure to go back and forth between “showing” the reader your point to “telling” the reader what it means.

Write a Show paragraph, then write a Tell paragraph, then switch back to a Show paragraph, etc. (Most 5-paragraph essays start by Telling, whereas this approach starts with Showing.

When you Show, you are focused and specific, often by providing examples and supporting details.

* * *

When you Tell, you are broad and general, and explain the meaning.

* * *
How to SHOW:
  • Be specific. (Instead of saying, “The dog was cute.” Say, “The dog, a miniature poodle named Jack, rolled over when you commanded him to ‘Speak!’”)
  • Give details. Remember “concrete details”? That just means words that are specific. (Instead of saying, “The trip was awesome,” say “We dove for albacore, built a giant bonfire and road the zip-line ten times.”)
  • Use your senses to describe: What do you see, hear, taste, smell and feel?
  • Give examples. If you Tell about something, “Everyone was upset by the ruling,”  Show them by giving examples of how upset they were, “First, women threw up their hands and screamed. Then, a couple children burst into tears. One man punched the wall.”
  • Use anecdotes or “mini-stories” to put the reader in the middle of the action.
  • Compare things to make your point. This is another way to Show more clearly what you mean. Instead of, “It was very hot outside.” Say, “It was as hot as a car roof in Arizona.” (Yes, the formal words for these are “similes,” “metaphors” and “analogies.”)
  • Zoom in. Like a zoom lens, take a closer look at what you are talking about, show/describe the little things close up.

How to TELL:.

  • Be broad and general.
  • Explain what something means.
  • Summarize a group of smaller ideas.
  • Reflect on the larger meaning of something. Look for “universal truths.”
  • Analyze what something means.
  • Interpret something you wrote.
  • Zoom out. Step back from your points and examine the Big Picture.
  • When you Tell, you are usually providing “meaning. “What does that mean?”

When you read other students’ sample essays, see if you can spot when they are Showing and when they are Telling. It might make more sense. Then, give it a shot with your own essay.

Check out How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps to get started on your college application essay!

Got questions? I LOVE comments!

what do you skip?

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” From author Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing.

What do you skip when you read? The long paragraphs that go on and on and lose your interest, right? So when you read back your own essay, and you hit one of those dull spots, either cut it back or take it out.

Take a Chill Pill: How to Strike the Right Tone in Your College App Essay

Image Via The Graphics Fairy

College Application Essays

Write Like You Talk

The voice and tone of narrative essays usually is “looser” or more “casual” than the typical academic essay. To do that, however, you often have to break the rules. Bend them gently and stay consistent. But if it sounds right, go for it!

The best tip for striking a more familiar tone with your college application essay: Write like you talk!

Harry Bauld, who wrote what I think is the best book on how to write college application essays–On Writing the College Application Essay–advises students to stick with an informal voice. He likens this voice to “a sweater, comfortable shoes. The voice is direct and unadorned.” Stay away, he says, from language that is too formal, which he dubs, “tuxedo talk.”

This stiff type of writing is used by people who want to sound smart and important; most popular among scholars (including English teachers!), lawyers and other professionals who want to sound like they know their stuff even when they don’t. It’s a dead giveaway that you are trying to impress–something you don’t want to reveal in these essays, even if that’s one of your goals.

Bauld said: “Work toward the informal. It is the most flexible voice, one that can be serious or light. On top of that bass line, you can play variations–just as you do with rhythm.”

When you write informally, you often need to break some of the rules of formal English. Here are some that are okay to break, but don’t overdo it! 

  • Use phrases or sentence fragments. Do this mainly for emphasis. Example: “I was shocked. Stunned. I couldn’t even talk. Not a word.”
  • End a sentence with a preposition. Again, stick with what would sound normal in conversation. “What do you want to talk about.” Instead of, “About what do you want to talk?”
  • Start a sentence with “And” or “But.” Again, use this for emphasis. Don’t over do it! “He ate the hamburger. And then he devoured three more.”
  • Throw in onomatopoeia. Remember those words that sound like what they are? Bang. Whack. Whoosh. Zip. Boom.
  • Use dialect or slang. Only use these if they are true to the speaker you are quoting. If you are quoting a surfer, it sounds appropriate if they say, “The waves were so awesome!” If they are from the Deep South, they can say, “Ya’ll.”
  • Contractions are fine. Again, trust whether it sounds OK within the larger context of your essay. “I didn’t want to go there.” Instead of, “I did not want to go there.”
  • Split those infinitives. It’s just not a big deal. “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Remember, these are only rules to break if they help create your voice, tone or make a point. Above all, writing casually does not mean you forget about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all the way you make your writing clean and accurate. You can only bend rule when you know the rules and stick to the important ones.

Also, after you write your rough draft, go back and read it again. Ask yourself: Would I really say that or am I trying to sound smart? If it sounds formal and pretentious at all, try to say it in a more direct and casual way.

For help finding a unique topic and crafting a narrative essay, check out my short, handy new book, Escape Essay Hell!: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Standout College Application Essays.

 

How to Write an Anecdote

College Application Essays

How to Tell a Story

In journalism, writers often use “anecdotal leads,” that is, starting a news or feature story with a mini-story about a real-life event, one that puts the reader in the middle of the action.

Usually, the anecdote only describes a single moment or incident.

But it’s usually a highlight.

Something happened.

Anecdotes make great introductions for college essays. (I believe there’s no better way to “grab” your reader than to start a story–or your essay–at the most exciting part!) So how do you write an anecdote? Here are some tips.

  • Start at the peak of the drama or excitement or conflict. Jump right in! (You will just back up and explain it later.)
  • Set the scene: Describe what you see, what you hear, what you feel (both literally and figuratively), what you smell and taste, if relevant. These are called sensory details.
  • Use the 5 Ws—Who was involved? What happened. Where did it happen? When did it happen? Why did it happen? ( “H”: How did it happen?)
  • Paint a picture with your words, or even better, describe a snippet of video. Zoom in on the action.
  • Usually the “action” in your anecdote takes place in a matter of a few minutes.
  • Throw in a line or two of dialogue to add drama or move the action forward.
  • Use “concrete details.” Be specific! Instead of saying, “The dog ran up to me.” Say, “the neighbor’s bull terrier, Brutus, charged me…”
  • In general, use short sentences or mix up the short and long.
  • Don’t worry about the background or explaining the larger context of the moment. You can back up and explain that in the next paragraph.
  • Borrow techniques you find in fiction writing: concrete details, dialogue, proper nouns, descriptive language, emotion, strong characters, etc.
  • Use simple language (avoid SAT vocab. words). Write with nouns and action verbs. Go easy on the adjectives.
  • If your mini-story (anecdote) takes three paragraphs to relate, try to go back and see if you can cut it down to two or even one paragraph by keeping only what you need to re-create the moment. You will be surprised how you can shorten them, and actually make them better!

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cut out all the wrong words.”  Mark Twain

Here is another post about how to write anecdotes that you will find very helpful, too!

Check out my new video tutorial on How to Write an Anecdote: Part One!

Who Should You Show Your Essay?

 

Students often want feedback on their college admissions essays, but are not sure where to turn. Here’s my advice:

1.Be very selective who you show it to. Remember, writing is subjective: one person might love your essay and another might hate it. Parents can be great sounding boards, and so can teachers, counselor and friends. Watch out for parents, teachers and counselors who don’t understand that real-life stories make the best essays, and try to take out the best parts (Many mistakenly believe students should only include “impressive” achievements and experiences. This is not true.).

2. Ask for specific feedback. Hand the reader a print-out and red pen and ask them to underline the parts they like and put stars by the parts they find dull or confusing. Don’t ask for anything more. If you agree with their feedback, keep the good stuff and work on the bad—either change it or cut it.

3. Be your own editor. Read it out loud to yourself to spot places where it bogs down. Trust yourself. If you like what you hear, chances are others will, too. If it sounds awkward or too wordy, it probably is—so fix it!

4. Ask your readers specific questions, such as:

1. Does this essay grab your interest at the beginning?
2. Do you get an idea of what I care about and value?
3. Are there any parts that are confusing or don’t make sense?
4. Do I come across as a likeable person? (Are there any specific words or sentences that make me sound unlikeable?)
5. Can you tell what personal quality or characteristic I’m trying to showcase in this essay? 

5. Always make sure you proofread one last time. Once you are done with your essay, and want someone to proofread, tell them you only want feedback on errors, not content. Also, you need to proofread it yourself right before you push the button to send it off—often students make last-minute changes and accidentally add errors.

Do You Have a “Universal Truth” in Your College Essay?

Finding the Life Lesson
in Your College Admission Essay

 

A key component of a powerful personal narrative (essay) is what’s called a “universal truth.”

They are also called “life lessons.”

Basically, when the writer starts to reflect upon the personal lessons learned from an experience, she or he needs to make sure to show why the lesson is important to everyone else as well—that is, why it is true on a universal level.

What is a universal truth?

Often, they are so “true” that they seem almost silly to say out loud.

Examples:

Love hurts.

Be true to yourself.

What goes around comes around.

Cheaters never win.

Never say never.

Sometimes you have to lose in order to win.

You can’t always get what you want.

Face your fears.

What goes around comes around(eg Karma).

You reap what you sow (you get out of life what you put into it).

(Try putting, “In life, …” before the universal truth to test it out.)

Read some sample essays and see if you can find the “universal truth.”

In your own college application essay, you don’t necessarily have to state the universal truth, however, at some point you should at least touch on it, usually toward the end.

If you need help getting started with your college application essay or personal statement, try my Jumpstart Guide.

Don’t look down!

(for this to make sense, you probably need to read the previous post)

Once you get the idea of how this Ladder works, now find some sample college admissions essays that you like. See if the writer shifts back and forth between the specific and the abstract. (Just jot down “show” when they are specific, and “tell” when they get abstract.) In general, the major shifts will occur between paragraphs, but you can vary within sentences as well.

When you go to write your own essay, review your outline and rough draft to make sure you are making the shifts. If you start with a specific incident or describe something, then make sure your next paragraph or so you shift into the abstract to explain it or reflect upon it. Then make sure you shift back to the specifics. And so on. If you start with a broad, general statement or paragraph, make sure you quickly shift into specifics.

In general, the specifics are the juicier writing. Who doesn’t like a good story, or a vivid example or a powerful description? The abstract, however, may take a bit more patience, but that is what gives meaning to your juicy writing.

Sorry, here’s another metaphor: The specifics are like candy, they go down easily and quickly, whereas the abstract is more like ice-cream, yummy but very rich. Too much of either and you can start to feel sick.

It’s really a matter of balance. Too many specifics and you get overwhelmed, buried in the details. Too much abstract discussion and you start to float away in the clouds, and drift off to sleep. The best place is to just keep moving—up and down that ladder.

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