Memorable or Mediocre: Which One Best Describes Your Student’s Application Essay?

Call me Ishmael. To thine own self be true. Full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

Admissions’ directors with tired eyes remember sentences and scenes that signify a great deal — not nothing. Rising seniors and 8th graders applying to high schools or boarding schools take heed: remove the fluff and excavate. Find the treasures buried in your past and pen them with a combination of pizzazz and passion.

Here are few tricks of the writing trade to help perk up – vs. put to sleep – the application readers of your student’s essay.

Use Muscular Verbs. Have your student go through her/his essay and circle the various To Be usages. Is, isn’t, was, wasn’t, could be, should be, would be. Switch those up for a less flabby and overused word-choice. And instead of wandering into a sentence with “I felt that I was forced to eat pasta my entire life,” try, “I was forced to eat pasta my entire life.” Much more dramatic – and memorable — to sprint versus lope into a thought. I’m not suggesting a student use a vocabulary that is forced or unnatural. The key is to find the right essay coach to help them become better, more interesting communicators.

Avoid the “things.” If you visited my house, you’d see that I like things, which I list by specific nouns: paintings, books, coffee cups, family pictures. My students know that they will see the “red pen” on their work when they opt for general over specificity and lazily use the “thing” words: something, anything, nothing, thing. The “thing” words hold no visual, aural or physical value for the reader. When a student writes, “It sounded something like a bell,” I ask: If it wasn’t a bell, what DID it sound like? Almost always, in the student’s next draft, I receive a very exacting description of the sound. It’s no longer mediocre, but memorable, and sounds “nothing” like a bell!

Details, details, details. There can never be too many vivid descriptions of an experience, a moment, a person, an interaction, a place. I tell students, stuff your first draft with oodles of adjectives and adverbs and clauses where you’re groping to tell me EXACTLY what the sunset or chocolate cake looked, felt, tasted like to you. Editing is the fun part. A good second draft with my “red pen” looks like a slasher movie on paper. Details make memorable essays; approximations or generalizations yield mediocre ones.

For more helpful nuggets, here’s some advice from MIT on how to write a college essay. As always, give a holler for more information about Brainstorms, Boot Camps and ongoing application essay offerings to find the best approach for your student. or 917-863-2424.