Listen: writing well is hard.
It is hard for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it is hard because you don’t know your audience and have to guess. Sometimes it is hard because you have a lot of stories tripping over each other to get onto the page. Sometimes it is hard because, no matter how smoothly you try to form your sentences, they invariably tumble out of you, all stiff and angular like a box of bent pipes.
But being able to write well is important. You will never encounter a situation in which obfuscation is to your advantage. You will frequently encounter situations where crisp, compelling writing can express your feelings, make your case, even save lives: Edward Tufte argues that the Challenger disaster could have been prevented if only the case against launching had been made more clearly.
While (hopefully) no lives are riding on your college application essays, this is a great time to revisit some of the rules of writing well.
George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is my personal guide to thinking about writing. The theoretical foundation he lays in this piece – about the importance of language, including writing, in shaping how we are capable of thinking – he later built upon in 1984.
Read this essay. Read it closely, read it carefully. It will change the way you think about writing. I keep Orwell’s rules for writing next to my desk always:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Now, in this essay Orwell took issue primarily with contemporary political propaganda. As he wrote:
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.
But the same is true for college essays, as Orwell doubtlessly would have realized if he were reanimated and handed him a sheaf of Common Applications. The sad truth is that most college application essays are not very good. When I say they are “not very good”, I mean they are either boring, impenetrable, melodramatic, or all of the above.
The single greatest scourge of college application essays is the advice dispensed by books with names like “50 Winning College Essays from Ivy League Students.” Everything about these books, from the titles on down, is so suffused with self-congratulation that it should be no surprise the essays themselves stink like bad perfume. Hint: These books exist because people at name-brand schools realized they could sell aspiring applicants drafts of their essays. They do not, as a rule, provide actual good advice. If anything, they simply reproduce the “lifeless, imitative style” of orthodoxy against which Orwell railed.
Orthodoxy runs deep. Last year I was traveling with a colleague from Yale. He had recently spent a week on a reservation helping Native American students navigate the college process, and he had been shocked by the degree to which the cliches and tropes of college essays had penetrated into their world. As he told me, the essays his students – who had lived vastly different lives than most mainstream applicants – were writing were indistinguishable from those written by applicants in southeastern Connecticut. They were composed of billowing clouds of “my global perspective” and “future potential as a leader” and “desire to leverage my education” to bllllllaurhfhasklafsafdghfalkasf.
Do not do this. Do not allow your essays to descend into an impenetrable bulk of buzzwords and banality. You are an interesting person. Your essays should be yours. This is best described in How to Write a Great Statement of Purpose, by Vince Gotera of the University of Northern Iowa, which was my guide to writing my essays when I applied to graduate school.
Consider, for example, Gotera’s comparison of two hypothetical introductory paragraphs for a master’s program in library science:
I am honored to apply for the Master of Library Science program at the University of Okoboji because as long as I can remember I have had a love affair with books. Since I was eleven I have known I wanted to be a librarian.
When I was eleven, my great-aunt Gretchen passed away and left me something that changed my life: a library of about five thousand books. Some of my best days were spent arranging and reading her books. Since then, I have wanted to be a librarian.
As Gotera says: each graf was 45 words long and contained substantively the same information (applicant has wanted to be a librarian since she was a young girl). But they are extraordinarily different essays, most strikingly because the former is generic where the latter is specific. It was a real thing, which happened to a real person, told simply. There is nothing better than that.
So let me save you the trouble of buying any of those books and close by quoting Kurt Vonnegut’s seven rules for writing well, which are as applicable to college applications as they are to writing everything else:
- Find a subject you care about.
- Do not ramble, though.
- Keep it simple.
- Have the guts to cut.
- Sound like yourself.
- Say what you mean to say.
- Pity the readers.
Specificity, clarity, and brevity are your keys. Use them to unlock the writer inside you.