If Goldilocks Gave Essay Advice

High school students often ask me for essay advice.  I’d like to think it’s because I’m held in high regard for my elegant command of the written word…really it’s because my job requires me to read nearly 2,000 Common Application personal statements a year.  When your brain has to process that many essays, you pick up a thing or two.

The most important part of your essay is the content.  Your experiences, your thoughts, your understanding of your world—that’s what we are looking for.  Style, however, can either elevate an essay or make it practically unreadable.  I often find that my advice on style is met with quizzical expressions.  My points, to be frank, are often conflicting, and it is obvious that the students I speak with are looking for a clear guideline—a guaranteed how to—on writing a memorable and successful college essay.  I don’t blame them.  The college process has many unknowns, and it’s natural to want a concrete piece of advice that will improve your application.  While there is certainly guidance I can provide on essay writing, each tip often comes with a qualifier.  I often find myself sounding a bit like Goldilocks as she sampled the bears’ porridge and beds: this essay is too “x,” this essay is too “y.”  The purpose of this post is to try to help you find the sweet spot for your essay.  We want it to be “just right.”



Too detailed:

On Tuesday, August 7th at 2:27 pm on the northwest corner of Spring Street and Palos Verdes, my father had a heart attack.


Too vague:

Recently, my family went through a difficult period.


Just right:

Your level of detail is somewhat up to your personal style—some writers like to create a vivid image for the reader while others would prefer to leave things to the imagination.  Many details are functionally unnecessary, however, and can clutter an essay.  On the other hand, it is important to include enough detail so that the reader picks up on what you need them to understand.  Is this something easily understood or recognized by most people?  Is it perhaps a bit more obscure?  How important are the details to understanding your experience?  These questions should drive your decision on what to include or leave out.



Too informal:

i was super pissed that they’d left me at home and had major FOMO.


Too formal:

My feelings rapidly ascended from exasperation to enmity upon devising that my kinfolk had neglected to convey me to the event.


Just right:

Again, your personal voice should come through in your essay.  Your topic of choice will likely impact your choices as well (for example, if you choose to write on a subject that’s more academic, your essay will likely be more formal).  It is important to remember that college admission counselors are not only looking to your essay to learn more about you but also to make certain you are prepared for the rigors of college-level writing.  There is a range of formality that is appropriate: your essay shouldn’t sound like a text message to your friend, but it shouldn’t look like a thesaurus-bot churned it out either.  A good reference point is the way you might talk or write to a teacher.


Figurative Language

Too figurative:

At my feet was a chrysalis, a silver ghost.  I left the remains and walked toward tomorrow’s sun.  It enveloped me, and nothing has been the same since.


Too literal:

I am writing this college essay to show you how I learned to be more mature.  My Eagle Scout project is a perfect anecdote for this, and I will use this story to prove my point.


Just right:

As an English major, I appreciate a bit of figurative flair.  You’ve worked hard in school to learn about literary devices and how to use them to make your writing more interesting and insightful…so go for it!  Your essay, however, should not require interpretive footnotes.  While we do read each student’s essay, we unfortunately do not have the time to pore over your prose with a literary eye.  If your use of metaphors and imagery render your point illegible, you’ve got a problem.  Style should never trump clarity.  It is possible, conversely, to be a bit too blunt.  We expect applicants to be able to write with a level of maturity, and spelling everything out for your reader can raise questions about your ability to succeed in a college-level writing course.



Too much like a resume:

I am an extremely caring person: I have been in the Red Cross Club for 3 years and am the president of Bowls for Hunger.  Furthermore, my position as first-chair violin speaks to my strong work ethic.


Too unsubstantiated:

I am defined by my caring nature and my strong work ethic.


Just right:

College essays are not legal briefs.  You do not need to provide quantifiable evidence for every claim you make; however, unsubstantiated statements tend to fall flat.  A common misstep we see students make in their essays is being overly reliant on their resume.  They use it as the spring board for their entire essay.  While this isn’t a “wrong” way to approach an essay, it eventually does the student a disservice.  We have already read your resume (it’s in the activities section of your Common App!) and by rehashing the details, you are limiting your space to cover other ideas and topics.  This advice often frustrates students at first, and understandably so!  You spend a lot of time on your extracurricular activities and they are important to you.  There is, after all, some truth to the adage that we are what we do.  Your accomplishments and activities can be a great window into your identity, but anecdotes are a much more effective way to use them.  Try to illustrate your points rather than imply that they should speak for themselves.  As my college counselor used to say, “Show, don’t tell!”


Imagine the content of your essay—the ideas you want to get across, the points you want to make—are a gift that you’re presenting to college admission counselors.  The style is the packaging.  If you just dump your gift in a brown paper bag and hand it over, it doesn’t seem very special.  What’s inside the bag may be wonderful, but it doesn’t seem like you made much of an effort.  Alternatively, you might put your gift in a box that’s covered in ribbons and bows.  It’s the kind of gift wrapping that takes 5 minutes and a pair of scissors to get through, and you open the box to find it mostly stuffed with tissue paper.  By the time you finally dig out the gift, no matter how great it is, it’s a bit of a letdown.  The style of your essay, like a nicely wrapped present, should serve as an eye-catching introduction to what’s inside.  Not too much, not too little—just right.

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