by j9robinson | Jun 10, 2010
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.
by j9robinson | Jun 4, 2010
Today, I’m going to try to practice what I preach (in this blog) and Show instead of Tell you the difference between good topics and bad topics:
- The Time I Climbed Mount Everest
- My Mission Trip to Costa Rica
- The Day We Won the State Championship
- Why I Hate Writing Admissions Essays
- The Day My Beloved Dog Spot Died
- Why I Love to Tutor Kids
- What I Learned in Model UN
- Why I’m a Karaoke Queen
- An Afternoon Working at In and Out Burger
- My Grandmother’s Hands
- I Make the Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich
- Taming the Beast—My Frizzy Red Hair
- Ode to my TI-89 (Calculator)
- My Obsession with Spiderman Comics
Do you See the difference? Okay, I can’t help myself. Now I’m going to Tell you about the differences. The bad topics are too general, they try to impress, they are overused, they most likely will be boring (Do they make you want to read them?). The good topics are specific, they are not trying to impress anyone (“mundane” is good!!), they are unique, and they make you want to read them.
Ready to start? Try my Jumpstart Guide or look for more Topic Ideas.
by j9robinson | Jun 3, 2010
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.
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.
by j9robinson | Oct 21, 2009
A new client, who I will call Sarah, met with me for the first time to talk about topic ideas.
When I pressed her about her interests, her hobbies, her passions, she kept insisting that she was a well-rounded, strong student, but didn’t have any one thing that stood out about her.
It’s a common obstacle in writing these essays.
Students think they need to have climbed Mt. Everest or invented a better paperclip to justify a strong topic.
These students just need to slow down long enough to see what is right in front of them: the often mundane (ordinary; everyday), yet fascinating qualities, habits, goals or characteristics that make them unique.
I gave Sarah a few examples of this idea: the student who wrote about her wild red hair; the girl who liked riding the public bus system and used that to “show” her sense of adventure and openess to all types of people; the student who wrote a tribute to his TI-83+ calculator; the girl who wrote about her prowess as a karaoke queen.
After listening to these ideas, Sarah kept insisting she really didn’t have anything special to write about herself.
She thought for a few more minutes and then said quietly, “I smile a lot.”
I had only spent about ten minutes with Sarah, and I had noticed she easily broke into a wide, beautiful smile.
Sarah even smiled when she talked.
It was as though she couldn’t stop herself.
“My mom says I’m always smiling,” she added, smiling.
What a perfect topic for an essay.
Sarah’s constant smiling obviously was a big part of who she is, and all she had to do was explore what this meant to her, how it affected her relationships and experiences with others, maybe develop some metaphors to her smiling and life, and she had a makings of an engaging essay.
As with Sarah, sometimes the best essay topics are so close you don’t even see them. Just keep looking!
If you still don’t believe me about the power of writing about everyday topics for college admissions essays over those you think might impress your college(s) of choice, read this comment from a veteran college admissions counselor (this was posted in the comments section in response to an article called A Few Essays That Worked in the The New York Times‘ blog on college admissions called The Choice):
“I am often asked how to compose memorable application essays out of “ordinary” teenage lives. High school seniors who haven’t won international awards or lived on houseboats or in homeless shelters can feel as if their essays have little to offer. They’re terrified that they will make the same “mistakes” that are highlighted here in “The Choice” (and no wonder … even I–an admissions professional for three decades–had a tough time differentiating between the “good” and “bad” ones!).
I always reply that, during my 15 years of reading application essays at Smith College, many of the most memorable submissions were on mundane topics. One of my all-time favorites was about a laundry mishap at a summer school. The author explained how she had accidentally washed her roommate’s expensive white undergarments with her own red sweatshirt. Of course, the essay wasn’t really just about laundry … it was more about the boundaries of friendship. Other wonderful essays I recall include a hilarious one on playing in a truly terrible school band and another called “Why I Shop at Wal-Mart.”
While there are lots of books out there that serve up samples of “successful” essays, there are two that I especially like that offer helpful suggestions on how to craft your own. “On Writing The College Application Essay: Secrets of a former Ivy League Admissions Officer,” by Harry Bauld (which I’ve recommended for eons) and a newcomer called, “Concise Advice: Jump-Starting Your College Admissions Essays,” by Robert Cronk, both lead students through the composition process and never lose sight of the fact that 17-year-olds can rarely report triumphs—or traumas—that might help their essays stand out in a crowd.
Admission officials really DO want to read about their applicants’ experiences, no matter how “typical,” and they are eager to view them through the writers’ eyes. Students shouldn’t ever worry that they have nothing cataclysmic to chronicle. After all, what could be more “ordinary” than laundry?”
— Sally Rubenstone, Senior Advisor, College Confidential
by j9robinson | Sep 26, 2009
Here’s a little book of essays written by graduates of Berkeley High School, which has a truly diverse student population and moves through about 700 seniors every year. (“As you will see from these stories, some live on their own, while others come from well-off families,” states the foreword.) And they all found compelling stories to tell about themselves. The essays, which targeted mostly California state schools, UCs and select private colleges across the country, were collected for this book by a savvy college counselor there named Ilene Abrams.
The book includes the name of the authors of each essay, along with what year they graduated and where they ended up going to college. It’s clear that these students were well-counseled in the process, since almost all the essays met the goal of their advisors: to tell a story “only you can tell.” The stories are rich in details, as diverse in topic, style and tone as their writers, and most tell some type of story. The best thing is that I believe they can help students see that they could write a similar essay!
In case you can’t read the title in the image: The Berkeley Book of College Essays: Personal Statements for California Universities and Other Selective Schools, compiled by Janet Huseby.
And I have to mention my own collection of stand out college application essays: Heavenly Essays.
by j9robinson | May 20, 2009
3A. ESSAY: IN ORDER FOR THE ADMISSIONS STAFF OF OUR COLLEGE TO GET TO KNOW YOU, THE APPLICANT, BETTER, WE ASK THAT YOU ANSWER THE FOLLOWING QUESTION:
ARE THERE ANY SIGNIFICANT EXPERIENCES YOU HAVE HAD, OR ACCOMPLISHMENTS YOU HAVE REALIZED, THAT HAVE HELPED TO DEFINE YOU AS A PERSON?
I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.
I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.
Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.
I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me.
I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.
I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prizewinning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.
But I have not yet gone to college.
Yes, this is a joke. Apparently, a guy named Hugh Gallagher wrote this for a writing contest.(more on Hugh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Gallagher_(humorist) ) Although his essay mocks the process of marketing yourself to colleges, this personal satire is compelling and readable–exactly what you want in your essay!!
Note his use of details, specific details. Instead of saying he cooks desserts, Gallagher writes he “cooks Thirty-Minute Brownies;” instead of just saying he was good at baseball, he said he was “scouted by the Mets;” and instead of saying he knows celebrities, he says he has “spoken with Elvis.” Also, see how he varies his sentence lengths to keep things moving foward. Try it!
BTW, Hugh ended up at NYU.
*And I have to mention my own collection of stand out college application essays: Heavenly Essays. It includes 50 narrative-style essays all written by real students who got into terrific school.
by j9robinson | May 19, 2009
Here’s an interesting article by the Wall Street Journal about college presidents from 10 prominent colleges and universities (Reed, Carleton, Wesleyan, U of P, Barnard, etc.) who were asked by the newspaper to answer their own college admissions essay prompts. There’s something satisfying in that…
Click here to read article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124155688466088871.html
by j9robinson | May 8, 2009
Roy Peter Clark was a famous writing coach when newspapers started directing their reporters to tell the news through a story-telling format in the late 70s and 80s, a genre called New Journalism and made famous by Tom Wolfe.
(The main difference between New Journalism stories and your college essays is that your stories are told in the first person, as opposed to the third person. It’s all narrative writing.)
Here’s a link to his 50 tips, and podcasts: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=78&aid=103943
My favorite tips, when it comes to writing college essays, are numbers 1, 8, 9, 10, 14, 20, 21, 22, 24, 32 and 34.
(With each podcast, Clark elaborates on the tip with examples and further insights–if you have the patience and are a good listener. I’m getting the book!)
by j9robinson | Apr 25, 2009
How to Write a Killer Essay
New York Times Upfront , Dec 13, 1999 by Glenn C. Altschuler
An Ivy League dean offers six tips to steer your admission essay in the right direction:
1. Write about your world and your experiences. A 17-year-old inhabits a foreign country, and adults who work in colleges are curious about what it’s like to live within its borders. Essays about a friendship that was forged or one that failed, buying a pair of sneakers, an afternoon working at Dunkin’ Donuts, or getting robbed on the subway can provide glimpses of your ideas, values, and passions.
2. Avoid writing about national and global issues. You’ll sound like a teenager trying to sound like an adult.
3. Describe, don’t characterize. Minimize adjectives and adverbs. “The Coach Who Changed My Life” may be healthy, wealthy, and wise, but these qualities can best be conveyed in a narrative of what he actually said and did. In “Ode to Dad,” a Cornell applicant explained her father’s values by describing his hands, encrusted with dirt from a career as a truck farmer. It worked.
4. Resist the temptation to let others speak for you. A quotation from a philosopher, poet, or politician may appear to be the perfect opportunity to parade your erudition. More often than not, however, you will impress no one.
5. Establish distance from your subject. Distance discourages essayists from drawing the cliched moral. Every semester I yearn for the applicant who will declare that organized sports are not a metaphor for life, that the race is not always to the swift. Years ago we admitted a student whose essay, “Riding the Pine,” found that no enduring truths came from sitting on the bench for an entire baseball season. It’s OK to be just a bit confused, to find the meaning of life elusive.
6. Know yourself. Selection committee members are pretty savvy. They have learned to look for authenticity, not profundity. But knowing yourself, on paper, takes imagination, reflection, and time. Start early, let parents and friends read it, and then revise. The voice you find may be your own.
GLENN C. ALTSCHULER is a dean and professor at Cornell University.
by j9robinson | Feb 13, 2009
College Admissions Essays:
How to Connect with Your Reader
I’ve talked about this already, but here is more scoop about your college application essay “audience,” and it’s a tough crowd: college admissions officers read zillions of these college application essays and most are BORING, and get tossed in the boring pile!!!
If you don’t believe me, here are some quotes from some honest (notice they weren’t quoted by name!) admissions folks gathered by an inspired, veteran English teacher named Jim Burke.
As an English teacher, Burke says he often is asked to help students on their essays, and he understands that many of them are either way too long, do not answer the prompt and/or are just like all the other essays.
He quotes in a Web appendix to his book,The English Teacher’s Companion:
“Another admissions officer I interviewed said: ‘There are three things you don’t ever want to watch being made: one is sausage, one is legislation, and the other is college admissions because the process is sometimes so random, given the number of kids that come across our desks.
I read a thousand applications, each one of which has to have an essay, and I give each application about ten minutes in the first read-through. Anything kids can do to connect with me as the reader, to make them stand out in that essay, which in many cases is the most important piece of the puzzle, helps me.’
‘When we read them, though the scale is 1 to 10, we mostly calibrate it to a 2, 5, and 8: 2 means the essay negatively affects the student’s application; 5 means it does nothing to advance the application; 8 means it moves it forward toward acceptance, though other factors are, of course, considered.’
If you want help bumping up your college application essay or personal statement, read my post on How to Bump Up a Dull Essay. Or, if you are just getting started, use my super helpful Jumpstart Guide.