Note: This article was originally published in the Wild + Free September 2016 bundle. Yesterday a friend reminded me that it was the college application early decision deadline (Nov 1st), which in turn reminded me that I wanted to revive this piece and make it public. Whether you simply want some creative writing tips or you have a student applying to college, I hope you find this helpful!
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Stanford admissions officer leaned forward and spoke as if revealing a secret, “What you need to understand,” he began, “is that my colleagues and I read thousands of application essays every year … and unfortunately, many are the same cliché essay. My best piece of advice to your students is to select the right story, a story that causes them to stand out from the crowd.”
That may have been the advice given to me years ago at an advisory panel for preparatory school English teachers—but now, after leaving that high-pressure life and embracing home education, I’ve been thinking of how ideally suited the homeschool student is to rise to this challenge. Standing out from the crowd and celebrating unique strengths, even quirks, is something homeschooling teens do really well.
Unlike SAT scores or transcripts, an application essay offers students the wonderful opportunity to introduce themselves, their authentically unique selves, to the admissions officer. This should not be taken lightly. Good grades, check; Community Service, check; Strong SAT score, check. Great! But how is this kid different and what can he or she offer to the university? That’s where the essay steps in, like an advocate storyteller, casting a vision of the unique individual, humanizing her, and hopefully introducing a character who is both endearing and unforgettable.
So, from my years of experience, here is my advice to your awesome teen:
Begin with Character
Make a list of your top three favorite characters from great literature. Think about what aspects of their “character” made you love them. What are their unique traits, and how did the author characterize them? Next, create a character sketch of yourself. Imagine that you are the protagonist of a novel and the author is introducing you for the first time. How would you be described? Write a scene in third person where you interact with someone. Include dialogue and body language. How does your character move? What are his or her language patterns?
Finally, take that third person scene and rewrite it in first person. Try to find your character’s voice—this is the character of you. Note that it’s a bit tricky to describe body language in first person, as we are only able to describe what can be felt and seen. For example, if you cannot see your face in a mirror, you cannot describe your facial expressions—but you can feel your muscles contract, your lips purse, your eyes shut, the heat rise into your cheeks—describe that instead.
The admissions officers have read thousands of essays; they can detect a phony. But more important than that, your authentic life experiences are going to be better material for strong writing—you have specific details to draw from because you’ve actually lived that specific moment. And most importantly, what the university will be getting is you—not some fantasy of who you want to be—and you owe them (and yourself) that honesty. Plus, you are awesome in your own unique way, so just embrace that individuality and rock it!
Consider Your Quirks
Let me start here with a clarification: you don’t want to sound like a weirdo. Super weird is no good. But little quirks are fun, and let’s face it, we all have them. As a matter of fact, some of the best essays I’ve read include them in some way. Don’t try to force them, but if a unique quirk fits well into your story, maybe you should mention it. Do you play the ukulele to your stuffed animals and an adoring YouTube audience? Well, that’s kinda cute. Do you design beautiful tattoos, trying to decide which one you’ll get when you turn 18 (I had a student who did this all over her writer’s notebook)? Well, that’s actually pretty cool. Do you pop your knuckles (I do) or twirl a pen when you think, flipping it between your fingers like a miniature baton (my husband does this)? These small details have the power to turn a flat character into an interesting, believable one. If you aren’t sure what your quirks are, ask your close friends and family—I bet they can tell you.
Know Your Audience
Please research the university before starting your essay. Every university has a student body profile in mind when they start putting together a class. Remember, they are creating a whole cohort. How would you serve this particular university? Where would you find your place? Furthermore, what are the values, goals, and mission of the school? How could you contribute to those? All of these items should be considered in your essay-writing process.
This can be the most challenging stage in the process. Of course, you will have prompts from which to work, but most are very broad, such as “describe a time when you overcame adversity.” This essay could offer a story about summiting a mountain, winning a soccer game, overcoming peer pressure, moving to a new town, or being the child of a first-generation immigrant. The broadness of the question and the range of answer possibilities are intentional to the prompt’s design. The application officers want to see how you will respond. Will you write the cliché essay? Or will you pull them into an authentic, compelling narrative? (Note: unless it’s truly unique, the soccer essay probably isn’t your best choice. I’ve only read a few team sport essays that hooked me—there are only so many ways one can describe almost losing, making the shot, then winning the game.)
Something else to consider: a unique, engaging story doesn’t have to be about a life-changing event. Common everyday events that take a turn, making them different and unexpected, can be fabulous story material, especially if they reveal something authentic about you. I suggest starting a list of possible essay topics your junior year. Keep it on your phone or computer, and every time a unique memory or experience pops into your head—one that highlights you as the “protagonist” of the story, and one that could connect with a larger theme—jot it down. You may not use any of these ideas in the long run, but this process will train your mind to start searching for stories, opening your eyes to all of the wonderful possibilities.
Keep it Focused
When working with students throughout the writing process, this has been one of my top critiques. You only have so many words to tell your story (usually ranging between 500 and 700 words), so stay focused and make each one count! Select a moment in your life that possesses the elements of story (setting, character, conflict, rising action, climax, and conclusion). Choose a story that takes place in a short amount of time. A few minutes to a few hours. Possibly one day. Do not write about something that took place over several days or weeks. Your thematic topic may have covered a longer period of time, but narrow it down to one specific moment, one distinct event, that brings focus and clarity to the larger topic.
An essay I particularly remember from years ago took place in a time frame of about two minutes. The story had an intense, slow-motion effect similar to when movies slow down to illustrate each detail of a tragic moment. The moment wasn’t truly tragic (it was actually a quite common embarrassing moment), but it was awful for her to experience, and she wanted to highlight that emotion. Needless to say, it worked, and I still remember the essay to this day.
What I have heard from admissions officers, and (unfortunately) what I experienced as an English teacher, is often only the first few sentences receive full attention. Unless they’re good. If those opening sentences are strong and have the power to pull in the reader, the whole essay will receive a similar amount of focused attention. But if they’re weak or cliché, it is likely the admissions officer will quickly skim the remainder.
So start strong! A good strategy is to experiment with a few different openings and then select what works best. Should you start with action, quickly throwing the reader into the story’s plot? This can be a good hook, especially if you have a distinct moment of action at the beginning of the story. What about descriptive language? Are you in a unique setting? If so, you could begin with a setting description that provides the backdrop and establishes the mood of your story. Is there a powerful line of dialogue that could serve as your opening? Or would you like to open with a quotation, an epigraph, that provides thematic inspiration for your piece? I used both of the latter techniques in this article. What’s important is that you hook them and don’t let go.
Show, Don’t Tell
The great mantra of creative writing and storytelling: show, don’t tell. Are you sad? Don’t tell me you’re sad; show it in the slowness of your step, the hunch of your shoulders, the loss of your appetite. Are you nervous? Please don’t have butterflies in your stomach (cliché); instead describe your sticky palms or the staccato tap of your foot.
We show through our senses, and in most cases, we can work at least four of the five senses into a well-written scene (taste tends to be the most difficult). We can also show through dialogue, but it must be natural dialogue, written with a similar style and rhythm to the way people actually talk.
Using strong active verbs instead of weak “to be” verbs may be the most significant element of “showing” language. A strong verb can often do the job of a weak verb, adverb, and adjective combined. It creates concise, focused writing (saving you word count). Even better, it places the reader in the action, allowing him to visualize the story in his head, showing him the events as they unfold, instead of merely telling him they happened.
It’s also a nice idea to incorporate some figurative devices, if it can be done well. Try to include a simile to describe either a sound or an idea that may be slightly abstract. Maybe a bit of alliteration will emphasize the mood you want to create. Try it. If it if feels forced or awkward, scrap it, but if you think it’s working, keep it in your review draft and get feedback.
We could spend the entire article discussing how to develop “showing” in your creative writing. If this is a new concept to you, I highly recommend doing some research and practicing before attempting your application essay.
Proofread, Edit, Revise
This goes far beyond editing for grammatical errors, but of course, do that too. What I’m referring to here is a true crafting process, one that includes multiple drafts, significant revisions, and several reviewers. For reviewers, look for people who read good books and can differentiate strong writing from weak writing. They may not have the training or expertise to tell you why something isn’t working, but they can identify it, and this is the most important feedback: to be pointed to what is and what isn’t working. Give them a copy of your draft, let them mark it up, and receive the feedback with humble gratitude. I’ve never drafted a piece of writing in my life that couldn’t use some (or much) improvement, neither have the professionals. The critique helps us to see weaknesses and make necessary changes.
Finally, read it aloud. Read it to yourself; read it to your parents, and have someone read it aloud to you. Developing an authentic voice in narrative writing requires a natural, fluid rhythm, and this can be best identified (heard) when the piece is read aloud. Listen for awkward moments, sections you stumble over, unintentionally repeated words, and clunky language. People often hear things in their writing they didn’t originally see, which makes reading aloud a wonderful revision technique. Most importantly, being able to read your writing aloud shows ownership and confidence in your words—a confidence necessary when creating (and embracing) the character of you!