Hello! I have writer’s block!
I don’t get writer’s block often, but when I do, it tends to be for a particular reason: it’s because I have stuff I want to write about but don’t know how. I have never – in my life – had too few things to say. It’s always the opposite problem.
I pick my blog topics based almost entirely on what I want to write that day. I’ve found if I fight my brain to follow hot trends or whatever, I end up not publishing anything.
Today I want to clear two writer neuroses at once by throwing out a bunch of loosely related essay tips I have with no overarching theme or purpose. I mean, except for the theme and purpose I just described…It’s good advice. You’ll like it.
1) The essay is about you
Part of my writer’s block journey is that I have 1,800 words of absolute garbage sitting in another file about why I think “show don’t tell” is bad advice. In general, I tend not to trust surface-level essay advice that you will find written five different places with any Google search.
Except for this idea. I sincerely believe that the fastest, easiest way to improve your essays is to make an active, consistent effort to make as much of every essay about yourself as possible. That can mean talking about what you did, how you felt, what someone or something meant to you, or anything else where you are the only thing that matters.
I think the “what someone or something meant to you” is where most students trip up. Other people can and should appear in your writing, but their entire existence in the essay is to better explain you. Compare these two opening paragraphs:
“My dad spent twenty years serving in the US Air Force as a pilot. He led bombing missions over Kuwait in the early 90s and was on Bill Clinton’s list of dignified airmen. But those medals cost him quite a bit. He was jumpy and quick to anger. He even hated flying on airplanes.”
“My dad’s 20 years in the Air Force played a major role in our relationship growing up. He would startle easily, so I had to be careful not to make loud noises when he was around. He also hated flying commercial airlines, so I spent a lot of summers in the back of our Buick playing chess with my brother while we drove for fifteen hours to a place we could have flown to in three.”
I hope you see why I think two is the superior paragraph. In no way is dad reduced to a 2D caricature. He’s still the same guy, only now the content has shifted from him to what he meant to you.
This is by far my most common advice when I “take a quick look” at a lot of your finished work. The writing is good! The essay is fully functional! But much too much of your precious word space is wasted on things that Admissions Officers don’t care about. They’re not deciding on if your dad should get in. Or your bandmates. Or your favorite teacher. Or your cat. They’re deciding on you, so they need to know as much about you as humanly possible.
2) Don’t get lost in the sauce
Getting lost in the sauce is a term I use to describe wasting word-space on content that explains the specificities of your idea or project past the point that anyone cares. Most people who read your essays will be educated, writer/scholarly types like me. They likely won’t be professionals in the major you are applying to. In rare cases, you might have someone from the department looking at an engineering/CS supplemental, but they’re not that interested in details, either.
Usually, two sentences around the second paragraph are enough. Let’s say you’re writing about building a boxcar that can crash and not break an egg. You need to get out what you were trying to accomplish and how you planned to do so. So here it would be something like:
“The goal of the boxcar contest was to achieve the fastest downhill speeds possible while also keeping an egg inside “alive” after the car crashed into the bumper at the bottom. I planned to weave a rubberband pattern around the egg to secure it. I hoped to utilize a vector formula taught to me by my Physics teacher to minimize the impact on the egg itself.”
And then you’re off! It doesn’t matter how the contest was scored, or what wood you used, or how the vector formula worked, or if a vector formula is even a thing I don’t know science, or how many rubber bands you needed to buy, or any of that. Set the framework for the essay and then get to the part where you do it. In general, the details you want to write about are the actions you took to achieve your goal. The “how” more than the “what” or “why”. This is why I bring up the “Challenge” portion in my last piece. It’s an easy way to force you to write about what you dealt with and how you then make actionable choices to make things work out. The essay is about you.
3) Based on a true story
This is my official stance on how much creative leverage I think is OK in a college essay. Everything that happens must be based on real, objective events. If you wrote about a debate trip in junior year, you better have gone on a debate trip in your junior year. If you write you got first place in something, you better have gotten first place. If you write about how important charity work is to you, charity work better be important to you.
But like movies “based on a true story,” the consumer agrees to suspend their disbelief if it leads to a better experience. Sully Sullenberger probably didn’t give that rousing speech to his fellow air control that the only successful objective was zero casualties. But I’m sure he mentioned it in some report three weeks later. We as viewers accept Tom Hanks playing dramatic hero because that’s what the movie is, a fictional movie based on a real dramatic hero.
I think the rules allow for more creative freedom when detailing exactly when, how, or why something went down. Usually, these flourishes are to make the narrative more compelling, entertaining, or focused. I mentioned in my past piece how you can make a minor challenge seem more significant than it was for dramatic tension. That fire alarm really did go off just as you were about to give your big speech at model UN. IRL some guy went and turned it off after 20 seconds, but during those 20 seconds, you looked at your notes and realized you were going to keep mentioning France when you meant to say Great Britain. In essay land, maybe the entire auditorium had to clear out, and you spent that 20 minutes making one last revision that put your speech over the top and earned you first prize.
I double support this if all you’re trying to do is keep the plot clean. If you and your friend met six times to plan a project, doing a bit each time. You can just say you met once and figured it all out then. It’s fine.
Is this the truth? Kind of. Can or will anyone try to verify it? Absolutely not. Even if they did, would they be mad? I don’t think so.
Don’t lie. But make that shit fun to read.
4) Keep it positive or at least motivated
I’m not telling you that everything in your essay should be sunshine and butterflies. But what you have to understand is that your essay will be one of the hundreds, maybe thousands your particular AO reads that year. That job is grueling, and it is a lot easier to want to read and support a student who writes positively or with a sense of hope vs. someone who seems mad at the world.
I used to edit essays with my mom (Hi mom! Tell me if you got this far!) We started seeing such a pattern of unnecessary discontent in essay drafts that we made a meme out of it:
It’s so HARRRRD
If there is a challenge you faced or obstacle you overcame, it is fair to explain why that challenge was so…challenging for you. But do not revel in it. It’s fine to talk about how your boss was impossible to satisfy and made you doubt your abilities. But do not then go on to explain how you would stay up all night worrying, and your hair started to fall out from the stress. The reader will get it; you don’t need to spell the agony out.
Instead, address the problem objectively and then immediately pivot to what you did to solve it. Spend those precious words explaining how you made the life you wanted for yourself instead of using them to explain why you wanted to leave that old life in the first place.
5) I wrote 1,400 words about difficult topics I don’t believe should be written about in essays. But it felt super inappropriate to include it here, so it will be its own article soon.
Instead, here’s a link to my half-ideas post again. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s better than this one. I think this one’s good, tho!
OK, LIGHTNING ROUND!
6) Don’t be afraid to write over word limits, but do respect them
You may have noticed I subscribe to a “more is more” philosophy in my writing. Don’t blame me; blame Bill Simmons for being my idol growing up.
Because of that, I hate writing with word limits. Not so much because I can’t, but because doing so causes my natural writing flow to get broken up every 40 seconds so I can double-check how long the paragraph I just wrote is and if it’s worth the investment.
Try not to do that. Write the essay the best you can, how you want to write it. And then go back and see what you can and can’t remove to get to the word count. My experience is that content cutting is kind of like how we’re going to “run out of oil” in 2050. 2050 is when we will have used half the Earth’s supply. The problem is that the second half is a lot harder to drill for than the first half. My experience is most essays can be cut down by 25% reasonably effortlessly, and then another 20% can come off if you absolutely need to. But that extra 20% is a lot harder and more detrimental to remove.
A good rule of thumb is to allow yourself 20-30% more space to write than the allotted amount. So for a 650 word essay, your draft can be…hold on…writer doing math.
770-850 words or so, and you should be able to trim it then. It’s when you get over 1,000 that things get hairy. But in general, write over then cut. Don’t skimp yourself during the actual writing process.
I plan to do a deeper dive into how to edit down work at some point. It’s kind of crazy to me how little info there is on it considering how massive a part of a job it is as a consultant. I do things my own special way, but I guarantee every essay editor on Earth has had to build a system to cut work down. You will, too.
OK, ACTUAL LIGHTNING ROUND!
7) Use Google Docs
It’s much better than Microsoft Word. I struggle with keeping things organized, so having all the work for all my students in one central hub helps a ton. Make separate files for different aspects of your application. I’d tell you mine, but mine kind of sucks.
It also makes sharing and collaborating on work so much easier. I’m never labeling something “CORNELL ESSAY MATTIE EDIT DRAFT 4 (FINAL)” again.
Update: You know those 1,400 words I mentioned moving to another file? Just gone. I think I accidentally added them as the title and then deleted that title. Google Doc homies know what I’m talking about.
It’s fine. That piece is a 3,000-er if I ever saw one.
8) Use Grammarly
Grammarly rules. Get your parents to pay for the pro version and put everything you write until the end of time through it before you submit. I do!
What’s best about Grammarly is that it doesn’t just pop up a bunch of random error messages. Instead, it will ding you for the same mistakes over and over and over and over until you stop making them. A fascinating moment for me was putting another editor’s finished piece into Grammarly and seeing all sorts of error messages I’d never seen before. I hadn’t because I never made those mistakes. Grammarly shows you where your weaknesses as a writer are, so that you may then fix them.
Within six months of using the service, I raised my SAT Grammar from a 710 to an 800. I would look at questions I used to get wrong and go “Oh, Grammarly…you dirty dog” and get them right because I had learned to stop making those mistakes IRL.
Ironically, it’s much less useful for me now because I don’t make nearly the same number of errors. Now I mostly use it to “finalize” work to double-check my copy editing. It still helps.
I promise I’m not on their payroll; I just have seen so much value in my own and my student’s work that I have to sing their praises. Even their free service is solid, and there are tons of other free editing options out there if you look. I just know this is the one I trust.
9) Save everything
This is another perk of Google Docs. The forms save every version of drafts you make, so you can go back in time and look at stuff that didn’t make it into the final version.
But you don’t need that. Keep tabs on everything you write. I have a “STUFF THAT SUCKS” folder with over 15,000 words in it. Even if it’s awful; even if you never think you could send it anywhere. It’s shocking how often around supplemental 11 I’ll be like, “Wait. We wrote about this as that UC essay we didn’t send. Where is that?” I’m slowly building my HOT SECRET PROJECT, and a significant aspect of that will involve the importance of reusing past essay work as much as possible. You need to save all that work, so you have it if/when you need it.
10) There should always be a “Ya, so what?”
Try hard to finish off as many essays as possible with a short paragraph or sentence explaining not just what your essay means about you, but also what your essay implies to the reader and school who gets it. If you write about basketball, you need to add a sentence like, “I plan to join your school’s basketball team as a freshman and play all four years.” Don’t lie, but if you’re going to do something in college, say you’re going to do it. If you don’t, there’s not really another space on the application to talk about what you plan to do—just a lot of space to say what you’ve already done. You have to make that connection yourself in your essays, so AOs know the score.
I’m bad at lightning rounds!
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(This piece won the 2020 r/applyingtocollege acorn award for most helpful post! It’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever written. Half-ideas is such fire omg.)