We had the opportunity to talk with about 100 high school seniors from a very good high school in New York City a couple of weeks ago. Each student had written down three ideas for a common application essay, and we told each student which one (or two) we thought were worth developing.
Last weekend, I read all of the essays they had written, and I went back to the school to go over them with the students. Here is what I told the classes (in brief):
- Pay attention to your grammar—Watch out for basic punctuation mistakes (no comma before the “and” in a compound sentence, periods and commas outside quotation marks, incorrect use of semicolons and dashes, lack of hyphenation in compound adjectives before nouns), missing grammatical “niceties” (no split infinitives, correct placement of “only” in a sentence), and incorrect verb tenses (inexplicable shifts from present to past tense or vice versa, lack of appropriate use of the past perfect tense).
- Be careful about your word choice—Don’t use a sophisticated or “big” word that you would never use naturally in your own formal speech (like when you are talking in class or to a teacher). It almost never works, and you often use the word just slightly incorrectly.
- Get rid of wordiness—Do not use 15 words to say what 5 words could have said just as well, if not better, and omit unnecessary qualifiers that weaken your writing (e.g., somewhat, a bit, very). Keep your writing crisp and clear; make it flow. For the main essay in the Common App, you have a word limit of 650 words, which is not really a lot. Don’t waste them. But, for sure, don’t write 650 words if you have only 550 words’ worth to say. Just leave it at 550.
- Grab the reader’s attention twice—Write a great first sentence, which makes the admissions officer want to continue reading your essay (when he or she has hundreds more to read). Then, write a great final sentence, which is your last chance to make an impression on that admissions officer.
- Remember what the point is—If you are telling a story as part of your essay, the story is not the point; the point is the point. In other words, what you learned from the experience you are writing about or how the experience impacted your choice of a field to study in college or a career or how the experience changed your thinking is the point of the essay. The story is a means to an end; the point is the end. And don’t get bogged down in the details of your story; the reader doesn’t need to know every single thing that happened. Be selective or summarize to keep the story moving.
The long-time and accomplished English teacher we were working with told her students that it was important not to distract the reader with grammatical mistakes and wordiness and poor word choice. She explained that all of those things would make the reader stop for a second and look puzzled. She is right.
Breaking your reader’s engagement with you and your essay because of mistakes you shouldn’t be making as a high school senior could mean all the difference. Ask an adult for help. It is super-hard to edit your own essay and catch all of your mistakes. Get someone to talk it through with you, and don’t wait until the last minute to do it.
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