This all sounds great, but at this point in my English classroom, my seniors all look at me with blank stares. I see the question in their eyes, “But how do we do this?”
I tell them, in my most supportive, encouraging, nurturing, quiet voice, as if I’m sharing with them the secret of the meaning of life, I whisper, “The power of your essay lies in its style -- yours and nobody elses.”
Again, blank stares.
Over the next few weeks, we discuss style, review college essay samples, practice learned techniques and narrow down their essay’s focus. And over the years, I’ve discovered the style elements that provide the most impact on a student’s essay. Mind you, this is not an exhaustive list, but it is a great start for how your child can polish his story for maximum impact.
First, students need to prove what they are trying to convey by employing “Show Not Tell.” This is a tried and true writing lesson in schools, but it finally has meaning to students when introduced as a piece of the college essay. This technique begins by eliminating blanket descriptors: determined, driven, ambitious. This one-word descriptor may be exactly what the student wants the college to know, and knowing what he wants to convey is important, but don’t just tell the college, “I’m determined to be a veterinarian.” This sentence exists on every application of every student who wants the same thing. Rather, I tell my students, show your determination. Tell a story that exemplifies determination WITHOUT using that word.
Second, students have a tendency to want to write an essay with a much-too-formal voice. Their essays have the feel of a research report, rather than a personal statement. I always recommend students think of the essay as a polished diary entry. This helps them see that the writing needs to be personal, but still appropriate for the audience. Diaries are full of emotion, written with purpose, and outside the traditional five paragraph essay. This is what the college wants to see -- who you are at the core in a voice that comes alive.
Third, don’t philosophize or ask questions without answers. I remind them, again, to use specific examples to illustrate ideas, but to be sure to assign meaning to the experiences and to explain how they have grown from them. They need to use the example to define meaning, growth and the depth of the experience. This doesn’t happen with a list of accomplishments or activities; it only happens with the right focus and perfect-fit experience that illustrates that focus. Remind them not to manufacture hardship, but to be honest about an experience that exemplifies who they are.
Finally, I always give them a list of basic style elements that with only a few minor tweaks can raise the essay’s level of sophistication. I’ll share my favorite ten here.
One, use plenty of “I.” This is a first-person essay, so don’t give credit to an unidentified “you.”
Two, avoid famous quotes. These are not your words, so word count is wasted with very little payback.
Three, don’t allow cliches to speak for you. A cliche may feel appropriate, but when dissecting the cliche, you will always find that your story captures something uniquely different -- so capture it.
Four, use concrete diction and precise verbs, avoiding the passive voice. This will keep the reader engaged.
Five, try to include at least one sentence with a colon and one with a semicolon. This shows writing sophistication.
Six, use at least one sentence with parallel structure to show mastery of written language.
Seven, vary sentence structure for effect. Use a combination of long and short sentences to pace the story and build tension while avoiding the dead words: very, really, a lot, etc.
Eight, avoid trite transitions: for example, in conclusion, etc.
Nine, eliminate the word “there.” A more specific word or more interesting sentence structure will always be more effective.
Ten, and my favorite, be sure to write “full circle.” This means that you need to end in the same place you began -- and with an em dash. Let me give you an example. A student was telling a story about bravery. He started with a description of stuffed dog who was his comfort item as a kid -- he called him Roscoe. The student then transitioned to story about overcoming anxiety. Then he talked about who he’d become because of the struggle. He ended the essay with the last line, “I am proud of who I’ve become -- and so is Roscoe.” Now that’s powerful!
As much as I’d like to believe the college essay isn’t the end-all-be-all, unfortunately, the essay can be just that. So in the end, just help your child be himself, be encouraging, don’t ask for too many people to review it -- too many cooks in the kitchen ruin all recipes -- and know that the right college will find him.
And tell him amidst his blank stare, “You CAN do this!”