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  • Bentham Admissions Team

Tricks for writing a great college essay: story, style, and tone

When you write your personal statement you want to accomplish three things. You want to relate memorable anecdotes (or a single story) in order to forge a bond with your reader. A good anecdote creates an indelible impression and puts the reader in your corner. You also want to demonstrate maturity, focus, and resilience, using this anecdote to illustrate your singular passion. And finally, you want your writing ability to jump out. If you write well, you can accomplish all three objectives. We often consider writing to be a talent that students either have or don’t, but writing is a skill quickly learned with good instruction; below are a few tips and tricks to make your writing stand out.

The importance of story

Do you know how long an admissions officer takes with your college essay? At selective universities, they take sixty seconds, or under, unless the essay engages them. The best way to engage your reader is by telling a story.

Everyone has stories to tell, even applicants who are at first paralyzed by the conviction that “nothing has happened” to them. Flannery O’Connor, one of the greatest American writers, rarely left her home in Georgia during her life. She believed that everyone who has survived childhood has enough to write about for a lifetime. Sibling rivalries, parental expectations, standing up for yourself, poignant encounters with strangers, difficult bosses, awkward conflicts with friends, rejections, embarrassments, and obstacles of every kind provide the external and internal conflict needed for a story.

Every story, if told truthfully and with precision, is unique. Storytelling is therefore a guaranteed way to tell the admissions officers something they haven’t heard before. The only stories to avoid are those in which you really didn’t have any decisions to make - sports injuries are the most played-out example. Do not write about recovering from a sports injury.

You might tell your story over the course of the essay, with asides that demonstrate your passions, values, and background. Or you might just begin with a small story, an anecdote. You might feel that there aren’t enough words in a college essay to tell a whole story. One trick is to start your anecdote in media res, a Latin phrase meaning to start in the middle. Many short stories do this. You start at an exciting or intense moment, and then pause the action and give context to explain what’s going on. Sometimes students frame their essay with an anecdote, hooking the reader with a suspenseful situation and only returning to the anecdote in the last paragraph.

Bring your college essay to life

It’s impossible to tell a story about yourself without creating a picture of who you are, but your story will fail to engage unless you deploy the techniques that bring a story to life. The first of these is sensory detail. When you tell your story, try to use details from each of the five senses. It is well known, for example, that smells trigger vivid memories and strong emotions in your reader. If you say you were at a poolside barbecue, we aren’t fully engaged, but if you bring in the smell of charcoal, and throw in the odor of chlorine, we are right there with you. We even feel bonded to you, because our own pool and barbecue memories and emotions are involved. A simple trick creates a potent bond between the admissions reader and you.

Sounds, visual details, tastes, and the sense of touch (not only things you touch with your fingers, but also with your skin, like sun, wind, and rain) provide powerful texture to your scene. Scientists have actually done brain scans of readers, and found that without sensory detail, only the language center of the brain lights up; when a reader encounters a description of a sound, however, the auditory part of the brain also lights up. The same goes for the other senses - use sensory detail and the brain of the reader is literally much more engaged.

Sensory detail is an example of the importance of concreteness in your writing. Use precise and telling details, details that don’t just describe but also reveal something about what you are describing. If your father, at the barbecue, looks angry when someone suggests it’s time to flip the burgers, that tells us something about him. If you have a color-coded chart in your room that organizes your day, that is also a telling detail.

When you have to use abstractions to articulate an idea or emotion, consider using figurative language to make them concrete. Using comparisons (metaphors, similes, personification) shows off your ingenuity as a writer, and makes your writing come literally to life ( the truck snarls as it bears down on you). In the famous “Costco essay” by Brittany Stinson, at one point she throws her churro into the air. She uses the verb “jettisoned” and then describes how her “sugar rocket gracefully sliced” the air– a much more vivid picture. In trying to convey your experience to another, you have to remember that to them it is a blurry picture unless you use precise, figurative, and sensory detail, to bring things into focus.

Write with style

Writing well is a matter of a few simple techniques:

Use strong verbs - The verb propels the sentence. A weak verb guarantees a weak sentence. A verb like “jettison” creates a strong one. This is not necessarily something to think about when writing a first draft, which could be paralyzing, but to work on when revising. Instead of writing that something “is interesting to me because”, say that “it interests me because”. Find stronger and more precise synonyms for words like show, saw, went, and said. You say so much more when you write whispered, stammered, promised, or lied. When you “went” did you barrel, charge, saunter, or creep? Again, precision brings the essay to life. Use a thesaurus! The purpose of a thesaurus isn’t just to find a synonym, it’s to find the exact synonym you need.

Active voice - The most common verb in our language is the to be verb - is, was, were, be, been. As the previous sentence shows, we can’t always avoid “is”, but a lot of the time we should, particularly because it often indicates passive voice, which occurs when the subject that is performing the action ends up being the object of the sentence (the ground was covered with leaves). To revise this sentence using active voice, you would write Leaves cover the ground. Not only does this make your writing active, but also concise. Write your meaning in the fewest words possible, and the essay zips along for the reader. Also, later in the writing process, word count bedevils college essay writers. If you revise for active voice, you will free up a lot of words.

Vary the lengths of your sentences and paragraphs - When students write, they often tend to finish a thought, worry that the sentence is too short, put in a comma and a conjunction, write another thought, and then worry that it’s getting too long and use a period. In this manner, most of their sentences have the same monotonous and random structure. Vary your sentence length deliberately. Use a short punchy sentence for effect. Increase the drama in your story by using a short one-sentence paragraph now and then.

It works.

Pick an adjective - students often create redundancy in writing by using a pair of adjectives that basically mean the same thing: kind and generous, horrified and appalled, frightened and intimidated. Pick one, and cut the other - again, stronger writing means lower word count.

Adopt a Consistent Tone - A college essay is called a personal statement, and it should be personal. Write in an informal, congenial style. Beyond that, think about the tone that best suits the story you have chosen to tell. Should it be lightly comic, straightforward candor, enthused ebullience? Be sure that your tone is not pedantic, defensive, boastful, or angry. You’re making a friend.

Writing is Revising

It’s impossible for any writer to think about all of these dimensions of writing all the time as they are writing. The well-chosen verb, the ingenious metaphor, the tight sentence, these are the fruits of revision. Rough out a draft without worrying about how good it is - first drafts are always clumsy. As you revise, you will focus on creating a more concise, more precise, more vivid, and more focused essay. It takes time, so start early and write often! It would also help to have an editing expert in your corner. Contact Bentham Admissions to learn more.


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