Photo Via Goop
This might seem random, but I found some powerful writing advice on the blog of Gwyneth Paltrow that I believe is relevant to students writing their college application essays, and others, especially women.
The woman Paltrow recently featured in her blog, Goop, had
some opinions about how women have unconscious habits in their speech and writing that cause them to come across as less confident and competent.
And they hit me hard.
When I thought about it, I was surprised how my lingering insecurities and self-esteem issues still creep into my writing, and even how I talk.
So I thought you might would find them interesting, too. (more…)
When you write a college application essay, you want to “grab” the attention of your reader from the start.
My favorite writing technique to hook readers is to engage them with an anecdote, which is a real-life moment or incident.
You might have already written your essay, and not noticed that you have one of these magical anecdotes down low.
Chances are you started your essay telling about yourself in your essay, and missed the opportunity to reach out and grab your reader with a real-life anecdote that illustrates your point. (more…)
At the end of last year, I announced an essay writing contest. My goal was to find some quality examples of narrative writing by real students that I could include in my just-published collection of 50 sample college application essays, called Heavenly Essays.
About a hundred or so students generously submitted their essays, and most were very well-conceived and engaging. It was extremely difficult for me to pick the winners.
What I looked for were students who revealed a part of themselves in their essay by using narrative writing techniques, such as anecdotes, dialogues, descriptive writing, sensory details, an authentic voice, etc. (more…)
I was watching the most recent episode of Modern Family the other night, and thought it was funny and telling that Alex Dunphy, the token brainiac of the family, was obsessing about her college application essay.
The family was on a vacation in Australia, and Alex kept annoying everyone by trying to find life lessons and metaphors from the trip to use in her essay.
First off, what does that tell you about how these essays are becoming more and more of a national obsession? (My last post was about David Letterman’s Top 10 Ways to Make Your College App Essay Stand Out.)
To me, it says that these dreaded essays continue to rise above the other parts of the college admissions process in terms of what can either get you into a top college or keep you out. (more…)
In my previous post, I featured a question and answer session with author Robert Cronk, who wrote a popular writing guide on how to write narrative-style college application essays. I found Concise Advise, which directs students on how to use movie-script writing techniques to bring their essays to life, a helpful resource.
I invited him to share more of his advice and tips here on Essay Hell, and this is the second part. (Here’s Part One in case you missed it.):
Me: What do you think is the most important part of a college app essay?
Bob: To me, it’s the element of character development, or transition, or transformation, or realization of something, even in small ways. The best essays start with a moment that led to that development and ends with a better, stronger, wiser person. (more…)
I’m always on the lookout for great writing guides—especially books on how to write narrative, slice-of-life essays (like mine).
Only recently did I discover this book, Concise Advice, by Robert N. Cronk.
What I loved was that his approach was different than mine, but arrived at the same goal—a compelling college application essay that reveals the writer’s unique personality, character, passions, talents, goals, etc.
This is what I wrote about our two different approaches in a review for Amazon on the latest (third) edition of his book:
I was surprised at how similar this book was to mine, although it offered a different approach–and our goals were very similar. My guide steps students through the process of finding their defining qualities, and then looking for slice-of-life “moments” or “incidents” that illustrate that quality in a compelling way. I encourage them to look for “times” when they encountered some type of “problem,” and use that to show how they handled it and what they learned. The result are highly readable “narrative” essays that do a beautiful job of revealing what makes a student tick. (more…)
Are you starting to think about writing your college application essay?
If so, you need to know what makes a great essay to know how to start brainstorming and writing your own.
You can often recognize a “great one” when you read or hear it—but it’s more difficult to explain what exactly made it that way.
Here’s my attempt to list the features that comprise a great college application essay.
Unlike other essays, these have a very specific goal that you must always factor in when you write a great one: To help your college application land in the “Yes!” pile.
Many of the elements of an effective college admissions essay further that goal.
A GRRRREATTT college application essay:
1. “Grabs” the readers at the start. I believe one of the best ways to do this is to start with an anecdote (real-life incident). Something happens.
2. Usually is written in a narrative (story-telling/memoir-like/slice-of-life) style drawing off real-life experiences.
3. Reveals a specific core or “defining” quality (creative, resourceful, fierce, resilient, driven, etc.) about the writer, rather than trying to describe many qualities. This is how to focus the essay. (more…)
It’s almost Christmas Eve, just hours away in California. And we are coming upon another deadline–The Common Application–in January. If you are applying to colleges via the Common App, and you have yet to write your college application essays, I imagine you are starting to feel the heat of essay hell.
No use kicking yourself for waiting so long. I’m sure you have some good excuses. What does worry me, however, are students who might start to consider taking a “short cut.” Such as hiring one of those ubiquitous “Write Your Essay For You” online businesses that sell essays, or even worse, copying someone else’s. No matter how panicked you might feel at this point, it’s simply not worth it. For several reasons: (more…)
College Application Essays: Best Writing Advice
Five Hot Tips to Use on Your Essay
It’s hard to find good advice on writing. Here are five of my favorite tips from the best of the best:
1. If you are just starting to write your college application essay, take writer Anne Lamott’s advice and give yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft.” This is how all writers work–and you should, too. Just get a loose plan, and then write. Get it all out. Don’t worry about finding the exact right words, or the correct spelling, or landing your commas in the right place. Just let it rip. You can go back later and worry about those details. (This doesn’t mean that you try to write a shitty rough draft; it just means that if your rough draft is shitty, that’s okay. You can edit it later.)
If you are one of those straight A, honors and AP class types, she’s probably talking to YOU:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Gary Provost via Punctuation.com
2. So you have pounded out a rough draft, and you are trying to make your essay more engaging and readable. The easiest way to pick up the tempo is to go back and vary the length of your sentences. And include lots of short ones. Read this amazing paragraph by writing instructor Gary Provost to quickly see how this works:
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
3. Here’s another way to clean up your essay and make it stronger. This advice is as brilliant as it is simple. I’m still learning to trim my adjectives, too. It’s hard to resist them. You think they make your nouns stronger, better, more accurate. But not always. Take it from the man who knows how to grab and punch you with his words. Here’s a sentence overdosing on adjectives: When I was in my darkened, unkept bedroom, I took my small, fluffy striped pillow and threw it out the square,screened-in window. The idea is if you take out a few of these adjectives, the others have more impact.
When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.
― Mark Twain
4. Another type of word to avoid over using is the adverb. Those are words that mainly describe verbs, and usually end in -ly. Quickly, happily, stupidly, normally, angrily, etc. The idea is that we usually don’t need them to make our point. Here’s what horror writer Stephen King has to say about them:
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.
If you want to read King’s entire diatribe about them, click this link. The idea is that when you proofread something you wrote, look for these and take them out if you use them too often.
5. Finally, if you want one of the best tips to writing–including your college application essay–try this one. Nora Roberts, a popular novelist, was asked about her key to success during an interview for a profile in The New Yorker magazine. Her answer? Ass in the chair. That’s right. Just sit down and write something. You don’t have to spend hours. Just start and write for fifteen minutes. Then come back the next day for a half hour. Before you know it, you will have a draft. It’s the same idea as putting on your running shorts to go for a run. Just do it.
If you want help starting your college admissions essay, try my Jumpstart Guide.
I just went back over college essays my clients wrote over the last several years.
Despite the classic list of what not to write about (see previous post), I would say many wrote about mission trips, volunteering activities and sporting experiences anyway.
Some pulled it off, however, because they focused in on specific incidents and what they learned from those.
Others, however, were pretty flat.
My favorite essays, I noticed, almost always involved something unexpected, whether it was something that happened to the writer or how they reacted and learned from it.
They also included anecdotal leads. For example, here are two topics that resulted in strong essays:
1. One student wrote about how things always went his way, and how he was always top of his class, the star athlete and picked for leading roles in the drama program.
His essay told the story of how he expected to get the star role in his senior play, and was stunned to learn he got a lesser role. (this was the “unexpected”)
In his essay, he developed what he learned from that experience.
In a natural way he was able to highlight his talents, yet come across as humble and likable at the same time.
(He also started his essay with a simple anecdote of the moment a friend shouted out to him that he did not make the lead role. This short, narrative introduction included dialogue and captured with high emotion his huge disappointment. A perfect “grabber” intro!)
2. Another student wrote about how she injured her ankle playing soccer on the varsity team, and was out for the entire season, yet learned more sitting on the bench that season than she would have playing. (also, the “unexpected”)
Her essay focused on how she discovered a new perspective on her team and the game by simply watching.
Again, she showcased her talents, but showed how she was able to turn something negative into a positive.
(she also started her essay with a short narrative anecdote—with strong imagery on the setting, dialogue, etc—focusing on the moment she was injured, which added emotion and drama to his essay.)
What these effective essays had in common:
- They both included something unexpected and how the writer learned something from the experience.
- They both focused on one incident and expanded that into larger lessons learned.
- They both pulled the most intense moment to describe in their introductions, which made their essays full of lively writing (vivid details, descriptive language, colorful dialogue, etc.) highly readable.
What is unexpected about you?