I’m currently at jury duty, sitting in sticky, plastic chairs watching the movies they graciously air to entertain us for the hours we wait. The most recent tolerable movie they put on for us is My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. Now, I may just be stir-crazy after hour seven of sitting in this room, or I may be recalling this time 4 years ago writing my own college essays between bites of leftover stuffing and cranberry jelly, but all I can think of is what a good college essay Paris, the now college-bound daughter of Toula and Ian, could write. Early in the movie she quips, “My family smells like burnt oregano and feta.” What a stellar line. That could be her opening sentence. She’d have anecdotes about working at her zany grandparents’ restaurant and using Windex to heal all ailments. The movie itself was mediocre, but what it lacks in plot clarity, it makes up for in description, in its ability to strongly depict the culture, the environment, the zeitgeist of that family, and that’s what would make it a great essay.
In my own essay (which may be the only reason I was accepted to Tufts, because it certainly wasn’t my ACT score) I talked about playing bananagrams with my family, and used that to communicate my love of words and my home environment. Writing an essay is daunting, I know, but from my (limited) experience, there are a few simple steps you can take to make this process more doable, to get a My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 -level description into your essay.
1. Parents, if you’re reading this, stop! Well, you don’t have to stop...keep reading, send this to your college applicant, but if you’re writing the essay, stop! The voice of an 18-year-old and someone over twice that age sound different, and any admissions counselor can tell. By all means, help edit, support, offer those not-so-subtle reminders, but leave the writing to the applicant.
2. Tell the story that’s unique to you and about you. Maybe you have a wacky grandmother who’d be fun to write about, or you met someone inspirational on a service trip, but neither of those things tell us the story of you, which in itself is fascinating and powerful. Whether you’re framing it in something as simple as a commute in to school or something as grand as your grandparents’ wedding (as Paris might), make sure you’re sharing your passions, showing what excites you.
3. Be specific. Specificity helps paint a picture. “I like to eat with my uncle because he tells stories about his past” tells us a lot less than “when I dig into a bowl of my uncle’s award-winning chili, I’m bound to hear about his teenage years spent in the circus.” I would much rather hear about the latter.
4. Eliminate unnecessary words and strengthen adjectives. Very is a very useless word. Instead of “very happy,” say “elated.” Instead of “very shiny,” say “gleaming.” You can almost always strengthen an essay by taking 'very' or 'pretty' out of it. Similarly, qualifiers like “The first thing I’m going to tell you” or “be able to” take up precious space. Don’t just tell us that you’re going to tell us, do it. Be active with your words. With your word count already limited, squeeze as much juice out of each word as you can.
5. Reread, reread, reread! (Clearly my word count is not limited). Rereading plays two important roles. The last thing you want is a silly typo or misspelling in your essay. Get a second or third pair of eyes on it. Ask a teacher, a parent, a friend, but an extra look can never hurt. Rereading or even reading out loud will also help make sure your writing sound normal. Before turning in important essays, I will read the whole thing out loud to myself in a mirror. While this probably makes my housemates concerned for my well being, it is helpful to hear your words and make sure they sound natural. The admissions readers are reading thousands of essays, the last thing they want is have to reread a sentence or phrase because it is written in a confusing way.
6. Have fun! Show your personality. Enjoy the process and it will come through in your writing. This is your chance to step away from the formal 5-paragraph essay your AP English teacher makes you write. In my essay, I wrote about fart jokes and it worked out okay; make sure you are shining through.
That’s the advice this grizzled, old senior has. Enjoy the process and it will all work out! Now, I’ve got to go back to crying at Diane Keaton and Michael Douglas’ love story at the end of And So It Goes and pray that my juror number doesn’t get called.
Photo Credit: Flickr, Andrew Riddell