Last week, I had the privilege of attending a selective writers' conference at Yale University in New Haven, CT. Throughout the week, I read countless short stories, personal essays, and fictional works by my fellow writers. We discussed in-depth what works and doesn't work about each of our manuscripts, and especially as it pertains to engaging readers. Throughout our many discussions, a pattern of questions were raised. These questions can help writers of any genre--and especially college essay-writers--reflect on what they've written to ensure that the content or topic truly resonates with readers. Ask yourself these 5 questions once you've finished a personal essay or prompt response to gauge whether what you've written is meaningful, thought-provoking, engaging, and authentic:
1. Am I writing in MY voice? A writer's voice is his/her distinct personality and style that shines through his/her writing, giving a readers a sense of who he/she is. Your voice sets you apart from other applicants, and helps readers connect with the experience that you're relaying, because you're showing that it's uniquely your experience. Remember that a thousand students could write about living abroad during high school, but only YOU can write about it in your voice! If you're writing as YOU (meaning, you're not trying to be funnier or more self-deprecating than usual), your voice usually comes across strongly, and helps add meaning to what you're writing. If you're trying to be someone you're not through your writing, it will read as inauthentic or fake. Your writing should reflect who you are!
2. Does my tone match what I'm trying to say? If you're writing about the death of a family member, then the tone (or the writer's attitude toward a subject) should be serious, somber, reflective, and maybe even melancholic. If you're writing about being the only girl at robotics camp, then your voice should clearly express how you felt in that setting: adventurous, confident and self-assured? Or maybe you were nervous and not quite sure of yourself (at least at the beginning)? Either way, the tone of the piece should reflect the topic that you're dealing with. If you're writing from the heart, this will be easy. Just avoid a snarky/sarcastic/disrespectful tone at all costs, especially in the college essay. If you want to be taken seriously here, you have to be serious with your writing.
3. Does this piece tell readers something important about me? When a reader finishes your personal essay, he/she should be able to say: 'Ah, I know this person now, because he/she has shown me a glimpse of his/her world.' This is why your topic is so important. If you're writing about overcoming obstacles, learning a new skill, traveling, or the challenges of taking on a leadership role, then you're giving readers a chance to see how you handle important, difficult, or even life-changing situations (and there is no better glimpse into someone's personality than through these types of experiences!). If you're writing about a fun day on the beach with your friends, there is little opportunity to showcase how you grew as a person or how you're stronger/smarter/better/more confident as a result of the experience. Readers wants to be brought into a moment of your life, to experience it with you, and to see how you changed as a result- especially for the better! That is how they'll connect with you and get to know you through your work.
4. Am I showing and not just telling readers who I am? This is huge. Showing your readers who you are makes you much more engaging and relatable, and it gives you so much more power as a writer when it comes to conveying who you are. Here is an example showing readers who are you: You're writing about the bullying problem at your high school, and how one day you saw an underclassmen who was being shoved around outside. Instead of walking away or ignoring the situation, you deemed it safe enough to intervene, and you went over to the bullies and stood up for the younger student by asking the bullies why they were doing what they were doing and whether it benefited either side. Through your actions and dialogue in your writing, you're showing readers that you're standing up for what's right, that you've got a good head on your shoulders, and that you're not afraid to assert yourself in front of your peers. Telling readers, on the other hand, reads something like this: "I stand up for bullies at my school, which makes me a good person." Sure, anyone can tell readers this, but without an example or a glimpse of you in that moment, they still won't have a sense of the kind of person you are. SHOW, don't just tell!
5. Do I get straight to the point and not waste my words? Many personal essays begin with a lot of exposition, or background knowledge about the topic at hand, and they don't get to the real meat of the essay until about halfway through. Look at your own personal essay: where does it really start getting to the point (this is usually where the essay start to get really important!)? Does every sentence in your essay help illustrate the most important idea, or do you have fluff thrown in there too? Here's an example: you're writing about starring as the lead role in your high school's play, and the challenges and pressures that came along with that experience. You do not need to go back in time to your struggles at acting camp, to the audition process at high school, or to your debate about joining drama or student government. Start your essay at the play's opening night and SHOW readers what it looked/felt like to be in that position! Remember that with word count limits, every word and every sentence needs to support your main idea, or the most important thing you're trying to convey to readers. Don't feel like you need to inform readers of every single detail; readers are smart, they want the important stuff, and they'll fill in the blanks on their own.