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More Essay Writing Tips

December 16, 2008

Elizabeth Houston ’06

As a first-year admissions counselor, I've made a point of looking back at my high school experiences to help keep everything in perspective. For instance, when I planned out the questions I typically ask in an admissions interview, I also thought about what kind of answers I might have given to those questions as a high school senior. Recently, I revisited my own forgotten college admissions essays to see how they compare to the applications I've been reading. My first impression was, I used to be a really good writer! Reading my own well-written essays reassured me that I'm not being unreasonable when I expect good writing in the applications I read. As an admissions staff, we tell prospective students that it doesn't matter so much what you write about in your essays--we're just looking for a good essay. I've certainly found this to be true, as you can write a good essay (or a bad one) on just about any topic imaginable. All you really need is to have something to say, and to say it well, and it will leave a positive impression.

I've read less than fifty applications so far, and I already have some pet peeves for essay writing. Of course, every reader has their own idiosyncrasies, but nothing irritates me more than what I've come to call a "pseudo-good writer." These writers probably think they're pretty good writers, and they use lots of advanced vocabulary words and complex sentence structures. However, they put it all together in a way that obfuscates rather than elucidates their meaning. The joy in having a large vocabulary comes from being able to select the precise word that perfectly conveys the subtle nuances of what you intend to express. However, using an advanced word slightly incorrectly doesn't make you sound smart, it just makes your writing difficult to read and understand. If, for example, you don't really understand how "hesitate" means something different from "pause," you should just stop and reevaluate your word choice. (Did you have a reason to say "word selection"? Does it sound better and make your meaning more clear? If not, just stick to "word choice.") Practical Essay Tip 1: Don't use a fancy vocab word when a simpler word expresses your meaning more clearly. And the corollary Practical Essay Tip 2: If you are using a word you don't commonly use, look it up first to make sure that it means exactly what you think it means. And while we're giving tips, here's Essay Tip 3: Pay attention to flow. Can you read that entire paragraph out loud without stumbling? Do the words fit together well and clearly express coherent thoughts? If your writing is painful to read, I won't like you. I might still recommend to admit you, but I won't be happy about it.

Let's say writing is not your strong suit, and you're worried about how you will come across in your essay. You'll be reassured to know that we don't expect a publication-worthy piece of writing from everyone. If you have something meaningful to say and can express yourself clearly and coherently, you'll do just fine. Don't make yourself into one of the aforementioned pseudo-good writers in an effort to impress us. Do have someone look over your essay to help with proofreading, but don't let anyone else's suggestions destroy your authentic voice. Practical Tip 4: If someone's suggested edits don't sound like something you would ever write on your own, don't use them.

I realize none of these tips so far get at the Big Question: what should I write about? I know it's not helpful, but I really don't care what you write about (although you may want to save that essay about your porn career for another venue). Do what everyone tells you to do and write about something that interests you. If you're having difficulty picking a topic, ask yourself: Who am I? What's important to me? What do I care about? How did I become this way? From your answers to those questions, you should be able to find the seed of an essay topic. Whatever you do, don't pick a topic you think is boring, or you will write a boring essay. If you write about something that interests you, your interest and passion will shine through, and it will be a better essay.

The bottom line: Your essay will probably not impress us. That's okay. Your essay doesn't have to be the one that gets passed around the office (actually, those are usually the spectacularly bad ones) to have a positive impact on our admissions decision. We want to find out more about you, we want to make sure you have adequate writing skills, and we hope that you have something interesting to say. If you can submit a decent piece of writing that tells us something we don't already know about you, you're in good shape.

Note: If you're looking for more essay advice, I recommend Will's recent blog entry.

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