While we’re talking, let me offer you some free advice
Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for
You can’t be serious
You want to get ahead?
Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead
–(from “Aaron Burr, Sir” by Lin Manuel-Miranda)
The lyrics of this entire show have been looping in my head all summer, but I keep returning to this one as I sit down with incoming high school seniors to talk about the college essay. Here’s why:
Talk Less. Remember that old adage, show don’t tell? Same idea here: You can write that someone (or you) is happy or scared or frustrated or proud, but isn’t it more affective to describe the way a person’s eyes change when they smile, or how your body feels as you walk on to a stage or a field or in front of a podium? As Chekhov says, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Smile more: Students often shy away from humorous topics, but often these essays entertain and win over readers more. Certainly, if you have a heavy topic on which you have much to say, you should try to write it, but occasionally the deep dark family drama will not comfortably translate to the limited word count required. Surprisingly, it ends up being the unexceptional moments in life that often make the more intriguing essay topics: how you wear your hair, the toppings you choose to put on your pizza, the sound your guitar makes as you’re learning to play. Of course you’ll end up writing about much more (your identity, your culture, your history) as you describe these seemingly ordinary moments, and that’s what can make your essay stand out, your ability to find deeper meaning in something unexpected (this is how metaphors are born, and these are the secret ingredient of strong personal essays).
Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for. Do you want to spend your 600 words explaining how much you believe in affirmative action or how you’re against animal cruelty or gender discrimination? It’s not impossible, but it’s challenging. Better still, paint a picture of a moment in time in which you understood something about the world. But remember, it’s a scene you’re describing: when you understood how your house had a certain smell after being away for an extended period of time, how that hamburger tasted differently after learning about a slaughterhouse, when you opened your local paper and noticed how the coverage of boys’ sports always lands on the first page or above the fold. Just examples, here, but begin to pay attention to what gets you really going this fall.
Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead. Nothing turns people off more than braggarts, and the college essay is not a time to simply list your accomplishments, even if they’re thinly veiled in a litany of all of the service trips you’ve attended, soup kitchens you’ve visited, or underserved school children you’ve tutored. Of course, if you had a specific experience in one of these settings, by all means, write about it, but a general overview of your volunteer work does not a good essay make. Again, dig deep here: describe the facial expressions or body language of a person you had a one-of-a-kind experience with: the way a senior citizen’s voice language or voice changed when they spoke about a pivotal moment in their past; a little girl doing a cartwheel with straight legs for the first time, the sound that food makes as it settles into a bowl or a plate of a person who is hungry. Again, just ideas, but let these lead you towards moments of your own.
While we’re talking, let me offer you (one more piece of) some free advice: Don’t be discouraged if (when) this essay takes multiple drafts, weeks, eyes. In fact, in Bret Stephens’s recent New York Times article, “Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers,” he cautions: “If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong.” This isn’t easy, and it might be the first time many seniors have attempted to do this type of writing. You have limited space, big expectations, and a lot of voices. Don’t shirk people (parents, teachers) who offer to help or give you feedback. There will come a time, soon, when no one will offer to help or even, for some lucky ones, pay for someone else to help you. On the flip slide, don’t be discouraged if you don’t have any help. You can do this. You don’t need big words; in fact, big words are distracting in a personal essay. Listen to the stories you tell other people; what are the thoughts you have in the shower, that distraction-free time so ripe for creative thinking? Record yourself telling a story, then transcribe it, edit it, and read it aloud.
And, if you know someone who could really use some help but can’t afford it, please send them along to me. I’m happy to help.