Well, maybe not the perfect essay. But damned close.
The first question I can imagine you’d ask is: who in the world am I to tell you how to write such an essay? I’m glad you asked. Time for a shameless plug.
I’ve been applying to scholarships and fellowships from junior year of high school to my final year of college. Altogether, I’ve probably completed about 100-125 separate applications to scholarships in my academic career.
As a result, my efforts have awarded me somewhere in the ballpark of $300,000 in scholarships. While applying to graduate school, I received three separate fellowships to graduate school, including the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program and the Chancellor’s Fellowship available through the University of California system.
I’ve also edited many different essays from my peers, and for a few, had an extremely tiny part in successful scholarship and graduate school applications.
But more importantly, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants, and have the power of their advice.
When I started writing essays early in grade school, my mother was (and continues to be) my main editor. Armed with her degree in English from Dartmouth, her essay-writing requirements were exceptional. A favorite saying of hers? “Write your essay, then edit it. then edit again, Then edit again. And don’t stop editing it until it’s perfect. Then, bring it to me, and the real editing begins.” On an average essay, we went through ten to fifteen drafts on average. Yes, it was horrid; but it was also worth every printed page.
I also had the blessed opportunity to hone certain skills under the blessed Dr. Anne Wimbush Watts, previous Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor Emeritus of English at Morehouse College. Most students know her for her elocutionary capabilities, and her love for Mother Morehouse and all her sons. Less known about her, however, is the ability to turn a student’s raw talent and stories into a honed missile of an essay. She taught me things about an essay that readers look for without even knowing about it. I learned about her advice while applying for (and failing to obtain) the Rhodes Scholarship. The four-month long process was an intellectually arduous task, riddled with the destruction of my ego, the painstaking experience of recalling deep memories, and the creation of themes from my disjointed history. I can say this for sure, however; it was worth the torture.
However, this post isn’t about me. It’s about the tens of scholars I’ve seen who put their hearts and souls into their essays, and feel like they come up short. With better knowledge of the system, however, they can better communicate their story, their capabilities, and their successes to scholarship sponsors.
- Figure out EXACTLY what they’re asking for.
It’s amazing how many essays I see where the essayist doesn’t actually read the essay prompt. Do the opposite: read it ten, twenty, fifty times. The semantics of an essay question, will tell you EXACTLY what they are looking for. Moreover, what parts you decide to tell, and how you shape your story, will be wholly defined by how they ask their question.
See these four prompts, obtained from all over the Internet:
- Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at ___ appeals to you and why?
- Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- What matters to you, and why?
- Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the _____. How would that curriculum support your interests?
They’re all nearly the same, but their specifics are exceptionally important. The full essay you will write which describes your life and experiences can be formed to answer any of these questions. However, the main theme could be directed by what exactly they ask fior: a personal experience, a department you’re interested in, your personal beliefs, or whatever. Answering what they ask shows one extremely important personality trait: the capability to listen and respond, instead of answering what you think the readers want to hear.
Once you have that, get your essay basics down. How many words or characters do they ask for? Do you have space for other information in other essay sections? Can you write about an experience that a recommender can vouch for? Become an expert on the details; a little bird told me that’s where the devil lies.
- Vomit-write your story.
Remember Hemingway? ‘Write drunk, edit sober’? It’s good advice. As a teetotaler, I can’t heed his exact commands, but there’s something beautiful in freely expressing your thoughts.
Get E.E. Cummings with it. Throw grammar rules, punctuation, everything to the wind. Stop procrastinating, just write the shit. Get your story down on the page, intently, and then leave it to rest for later. Many times. Your brain continues to work subconciously after you leave a project; take advantage of this work by taking a break. Every time you return, you approach your words with a fresh start and a new perspective. I estimate for the Rhodes Scholarship, I probably vomited about 50,000 words altogether; those 50,000 had to be reworked, slashed, hacked, into a curt 1,000 word essay of my life’s work. Brutal, I know.
Also, separate your editing, rehashing, developing time from your vomit time. Don’t try to do both at the same time, as much as you might want to correct that grammar in paragraph two. Keeping your mind focused on one thing: creation, revamping, or destruction, not two at a time. It gives your mind purpose towards the task at hand. (It’s also something I have trouble with, so you’re not alone.)
- Show, don’t tell.
This sounds simple, but it’s MUCH easier said than done. Most essay readers will see hundreds of students who ‘have wonderful communication skills’ and are ‘extremely passionate about company ABC’ and who ‘have developed skills for success.’ Don’t get me wrong; those skills should be expressed, but not in the way you’d expect.
Don’t be scared of showing your own emotion and struggles. Amateur essayists falsely think that scholarships work best when you only talk about your accomplishments. Talk about your journey instead by writing out your story: your obstacles, your issues, your reality.
- What was it like growing up in your household?
- Who helped you succeed?
- Who were your influences?
- What were you interested in?
- Where have you visited?
- What obstacles tried to keep you from succeeding?
- Where did you see opportunities?
- Are there connections that you’ve observed through your experiences that others have not?
- Why apply to this program, instead of others?
You get the point.
By expressing those issues, you have the chance to show the readers how you navigated the realities of life, and thus became a better person. Mind you, this is harder process than what’s required with a normal essay; it’s likely you’ll come in contact with your inner demons. However, it’s worth it in the end. Completing such an exercise gives you the tools to express your story in a compelling, concise manner, both in essay and oral form. Trust me, understanding your identity is worth a few tears.
Take your thousands of words, and pull out the anecdotes that really resonate with your experience. These might include stories concerning your accomplishments, your failings, your transformative encounters. Instead of listing these experiences, like in a typical essay, you now have the story as to how those experiences were created. By showing the reader your story, the readers can see those fantastic skills, experiences, and obstacles you have overcome by example.
Take this first passage:
“My community service experience is without parallel. By volunteering with my peers with my church to help in our local park, I showed my ability to think on my feet, to lead as a peer who respects my fellow classmates, and I learned from the communities that I helped. I even learned about the diversity of religious beliefs by debating sarcastic atheists during community service about the power of spirituality in our society.”
Now, take this passage:
“While volunteering in the park for the homeless, some vitriolic atheist community members confronted our church group and began shouting epithets about Christianity. Though I was scared, I saw the opportunity for impassioned debate. Once I calmed down our church collective and the impassioned skeptics, we had a hour-long discussion about the merits and failings of industrialized religion. Even in our progressive society, we both learned we all have something to learn from each other.”
See the difference? The second passage had all the information from the first, sans arrogance, couched in an anecdote. Here’s the kicker: you exert psychological control on the reader. By telling the story of your experience, you don’t have to tell the readers your skills. They come to realize your skills of their own accord through your brilliantly told story!
Pretty genius huh? It’s also exceptionally hard to do. This is where iteration comes in. Write, rewrite, hack, slash, keep combining in different ways, until the story fits.
Now, most people ask me when they start their process if they could use some of my essays as a jumping off point. It makes sense; why not get ideas about writing great essays from successful essays? Unfortunately, you must be very cautious when using other’s essays. Many times, I suggest not to do it until your basic story is told.
What’s the problem? If you see anyone else’s story, their essay, before your story is written even in its most basic form, you’ll likely try to subtly copy ideas, thoughts, motives, and structures from other essays that don’t actively reverberate with your own story. That, my friend, makes for trite comparisons, emotionless words, and thematic confusion. When I use an essay for comparison, it’s mainly for consultation on structure, grammar, audience; everything but my own story, and you can get those after your story is on the paper.
Everyone has a unique story. Yes, even you. Finding the beauty in our own mundane past, and expressing it in the best way possible, should be completed individually.
Now, with your story told, now’s the time to:
- Trim the fat, with a fellow editor.
Now, with all this work you’ve put in, your essay is your baby. It’s an intellectual masterpiece, your magnum opus, and expression of struggle, determination, intellectual rigor, and creativity the likes the world has never seen! Someone tearing at such a work of art can feel like they’re destroying all that hard work. Unfortunately, it’s vital to your success. Your story is meant to be cohesive. You need someone on the outside to tell you which pieces of your story don’t fit, don’t work, and aren’t necessary. In fact, you need multiple people. The more revisions, the better.
However, it also helps to have one editor who goes the extra mile; someone with whom you can talk through the thoughts you’re trying to write. This can be anyone; a mother, a father, a professor; someone whom you trust your story with, and who can tell your story in a different light. Record all of those conversations as well; you’ll never know when you’ll find a new creative way to tell an old story.
- Understand that your essay is a part of a package, not a single entity.
For many undergraduate and graduate school applications, fellowships, grants, and the like, you have to add your personal information section, other small essays, your transcript, your resume or CV, and other marginal information. The Rhodes Scholarship required five separate recommendations, and has space for eight. Heavy, right?
But, there’s a couched opportunity in these types of applications: the more information they ask for, the more of an opportunity you have to sell your holistic nature as an applicant. This means, for every single piece of information they ask for, you can show a different part of yourself. Show your professorial contacts, you community mentors and mentees, evidence of your international experiences or projects you’ve developed. If you have self-plagiarized – repeated data from one part of your application to another – you’ve done something wrong. There’s an opportunity for new, and different, information somewhere.
Now, getting good recommendation letters is fodder for a whole other blog post, so I’ll leave that part out for now. But, just understand that the rest of your information is a compliment, and not just a supplement, to your presently superior essay.
Now, i must admit, my title is a bit misleading; there is no such thing as a perfect essay. It is, however, a work of art: it requires many iterations to get it right, but funders know a superior one when they see it. Writing your essay will take time, and there are many other tips and tricks that can help with such an essay. However, these tips have helped many on the path towards better self-expression.
Need some help reading through your own personal magnum opus? I’m available. Contact me, and we’ll work something out.
Good luck on your journey! Hope your path towards perfection leads you towards new found awareness.