The Art of Writing the College Essay
By Parke Muth
How to avoid the Big Mac Syndrome
Fast food comes to mind when I read essays that are part of college applications. Almost all the applications I see contain ”McEssays” essays usually five paragraphs long that consist primarily of abstractions and unsupported generalizations. While technically accurate they are organized and use correct grammar and proper spelling they are basically the same, like Big Macs. I have nothing against Big Macs, but the ones I eat in Charlottesville are not going to differ from the ones I eat in Paris, Peoria, or Palm Springs. I am not going to rave about the quality of a particular Big Mac, and the same can be said about the generic essay.
If an essay starts, ”I have been a member of the soccer team, and it has taught me leadership, perseverance, and hard work,” I can almost recite the rest of the essay without reading it. Each of the three middle paragraphs will give a bit of support to an abstraction, and the final paragraph will restate what has already been said. A McEssay isn’t wrong, but it’s not going to be a positive factor in an admission decision.
A student who uses vague abstractions poured into a preset form will end up being interpreted as a vague series of abstractions. A student who uses a clich becomes a clich to admissions officers. We are what we eat; we are also what we write.
A preset form leads to a generic essay, and so does a generic approach to what’s perceived as the right topic. Too many students begin the search for what to write about by asking, ”What does my college want to hear?” The thinking goes: If I can figure out what they are looking for, and if I can make myself look like that, then I’ll improve my chances.
Several years ago, the University of Virginia, where I work, asked students to describe an invention or creation from the past that was important to them. The No. 1 response from at least a thousand people was the Declaration of Independence. This fact might make some people think that our collegebound students are wonderfully patriotic, but since the institution was founded by Thomas Jefferson, I have a more realistic answer. Many students chose the Declaration because they thought that my colleagues and I would want to hear about how much they admired Thomas Jefferson. Whether this was a noble sentiment or a cynical maneuver, it meant that the university received a thousand essays that sounded pretty much alike and had virtually no positive bearing on the admission decision. Virginia is not looking for students who all think the same way, believe the same thing, or write the same essay.
The bad. Too often, students who want to avoid writing in a generic form or about a generic topic choose exactly the wrong remedy. They think that bigger topics or bigger words are better. But it is almost impossible, in a standard-length essay of 500 words, to write well about a vast topic: death, religion, politics, whatever. I am not advocating longer essays (remember how many applications admissions officers have to read); I am advocating essays with a tight focus and specific use of detail. In the world of admissions it is not God but the applicant who exists in the details.
Unfortunately, instead of detail, students try to impress colleges with big words. In trying to make feeding the homeless sound intellectual in the excerpted bad essay, the student resorted to a thesaurus and sounds pretentious. The act of helping the poor is hidden behind a wall of fancy words. The student assumed that these words would intensify the reader’s experience, but they diminish it. Any hope of hearing the student’s voice is lost because of a misguided attempt to sound smart.
The good. A good essay is not good because of the topic, though that can help, but because of the student’s voice as a writer. A good writer can make almost any topic interesting. A poor writer can make even the most dramatic topic boring. A good essay always shows; a poor essay virtually always tells. By showing, a writer appeals to all of the senses, not just the visual. To show means to provide an assortment for the eyes, ears, and, depending on the essay, the mouth, nose, or skin.
The student whose essay appears as an example of the good has risked describing showing in detail the deterioration of her father as he is treated for cancer. I do not know of a single member of Virginia’s admissions staff who was not affected by this essay. The writer carefully noticed everything that was happening to her father. She opens with the sound of his coughing and then creates a scene that we can see clearly. Writing about death and sickness is one of the most difficult topics to tackle in a college essay. Almost impossible, as I said above. But here is an example of good writing that also conveys the writer’s courage to face a terrible situation head-on with intellect and power.
A writer who shows respects the intelligence of the reader; a writer who tells focuses on the ideas, or the perceived ideas, behind the details. The latter is often more concerned about demonstrating the ability to be abstract than the capacity to be precise. In a short, personal essay, however, precision is power.
The risky. Any student who has learned the basics of showing should think about taking a risk on the college essay. What kind of risk? Think about starting an essay with: “I sat in the back of the police car.” Or, as in the example of the risky: “The woman wanted breasts.” These topic sentences reach out from the page and grab our attention. They create a bit of controversy and an expectation that the writer might be willing to take academic risks in the classroom. That does not mean a good essay necessarily follows, but it does mean that a reader can look forward to what will unfold.
Students wonder if they will be penalized if they take a risk in an application. They want to know if there is any risk in taking a risk. Of course there is. A risky essay might border on the offensive. In some cases, as in the excerpt, it is possible that a few readers might write off an applicant because of his or her questionable taste. But in my experience, the majority of admissions officers are open-minded. Erring on the side of the baroque might not be as bad as staying in the zone of the boring. Those who are willing to take a risk in their essay, to focus tightly on a topic, and to show readers a world through striking detail will certainly help their chances of admission.