In the last blog post about writing essays for BS/MD programs, I discussed some strategies to help you get started with writing your essays. But that’s only half the work! Once you’ve got the main content down, it’s time to figure out how to refine it to make it stand out from the rest. Presentation is just as important as content, so make sure you take your time to edit and draft multiple copies of your essays. For one of my universities, I ended up with 9 drafts! So don’t be afraid to go above and beyond with this step, because it really makes a world of a difference.
At the end of the last blog post, I briefly introduced the idea of finding creative ways describe details in your essays. In this post, I want to go further in depth on that topic, because I strongly believe that is something that really sets apart a good essay from a great essay. Below, I’ve given some examples of what I mean by this. Keep in mind, the content is really the same amongst all contrasting examples, but you’ll notice a significant difference in how the same message is related to the reader.
Good: As I stand at the podium, palms sweating and heart racing, I feel the adrenalin rushing through my veins as I begin my rebuttal speech.
Great: The moment I step up to the podium, I feel it. My blood is alive and electric, infusing me with so much energy that I do not think I can contain it. I feel as if, at any moment, I will explode like an unstable plutonium isotope.
*The “Good” example above is something a typical student may write when describing how nervous they felt in a specific situation. And while there’s technically nothing wrong with it, there’s also nothing too special about it. The “Great” example, on the other hand, stands out more because it makes use of simile that is more original and creative. It’s unlikely for other students to compare themselves to something like a plutonium isotope, and thus this type of contrast is more likely to catch the reader’s attention.
Good: When the young boy first saw me, his eyes lit up with joy as he immediately reached for my shiny necklace.
Great: When he saw me, his face broke into a huge smile, revealing a set of crooked baby teeth, accompanied by the forward thrust of his torso and jerky hand movements. I bent forward and stroked his puffy cheeks as he grabbed onto my heart-shaped necklace that seemingly hypnotized him with its diamond-like shine.
*The main difference between these two examples is the depth of the details. Sure, the first example is descriptive, but the second one goes above and beyond to describe the same situation in much more comprehensive manner. What you want to always try avoiding is having the reader fill in the blanks with details. You should paint a picture so clear for them, that nothing can be left up to the reader’s imagination. The more specific, the better.
In addition, as previously mentioned, try finding creative ways to say the same thing. For example, the second example uses words such as “hypnotized” and “diamond-like” to further elaborate on the simple idea that the necklace was shiny.
Good: And right then and there, I was presented with a daunting task that by no means was I ready to take on.
Great: In that moment, I was asked to take on a task seemingly as difficult as resisting the temptation to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden.
*Here, the second example makes uses of literary references. In fact, referencing scientists, mythological characters, literary characters, or even biblical ideas shows a greater depth of knowledge. Be judicious with where and when you place these references. If you throw them around too often, then their significance drops. If, however, they are strategically placed, then they can add a great deal of value to your essay.
For example, let’s say that you’re writing an essay about what role religion has played in your life. If you then decide to use the second example as opposed to the first, it makes an “aha!” connection in your reader’s mind. By no means is the biblical reference necessary for you to get across the same message, but it adds an element of surprise that helps elevate your writing skills.
If you think about it, it’s kind of unfair that for nearly 17 years of your life, you’ve been taught to write essays in a certain format, and now, all of a sudden, you’re being expected to completely disregard that style and write in a different fashion. But that’s just how it is. So what do you do about it? Let your imagination run wild! Use all those italics and exclamation points and parentheses. Start sentences with “and” and “but” and “because”. Use short sentences. And use really, really, really long sentences (as long as they’re not run-ons, of course!). Finally, this is a chance for you to get away with breaking some of those MLA rules that you’re always forced to adhere to. Don’t get too casual, but still loosen up a bit and show some personality. Vary it up and try to find your voice. Use the English language to your advantage, and write based on what you’re trying to emphasize. You could be trying to show a deeper side or quirkier side. Either way, variation in writing helps avoid monotony and is thus more like to keep the reader hooked.
I would recommend showing your essays to maximum of 5-7 people. Have one main person (usually a counselor) whose advice you deeply value and show them every draft of your essay to ask for input. On top of that, have two or three other people (often times this includes upperclassmen, teachers, and/or parents) whose advice you also value, but who may not have the time or experience to give you as frequent input as your main person. Show these people your most updated draft every few weeks to confirm that any new ideas you’ve added or changes you’ve made are for the better and that your thought process makes sense on paper. And lastly, have at least one person who you only show your final draft to so that they can catch any spelling or grammatical mistakes (a fresh set of eyes is best for this). These should be your core people. Beyond that, you can of course ask others to read your essays, but don’t always feel obligated to make the changes they recommend. If you attempt to please too many people, you will risk losing your own voice.
So there you have it, the three stages of writing your essays (see Pre-Writing and Writing for the previous articles)! It can definitely be a stressful and overwhelming process, but just like with everything else, try to plan it out so you’ve got enough time to do everything well. And on top of that, try to have some fun with it! For me, actually, writing essays was perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the entire college application process. I would get so absorbed in a thought and end up working until sometimes 2 or 3 am in the morning just writing everything down. Something about being awake at those late hours when everyone else it sleeping and it’s just me with my thoughts helped get my creative juices flowing. So figure out what works for you and then just let your ideas flow naturally!
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