College essays are different from the writing you’ve done for your English classes. In high school, a lot of kids still have trouble writing basic sentences and paragraphs. If you’re an honors student whose writing is ornate, wordy, or excessively formal—in other words, flowery—your teachers probably praise you simply because you’re different from the students who can’t find words at all. At selective colleges, however, the competition is tougher and any “purple prose” will reflect badly on your skill as a writer. Here are some tips for avoiding it.
Know your purpose
According to Swarthmore College, your essay “will allow an admissions officer to…see you as a person. A well-written essay should convey your thoughts, attitudes, personal qualities, imagination, sense of humor and creativity.” The admissions officer wants to see you as a person so she can determine whether you’re a good fit for the institution of higher learning where she works. Your essay should demonstrate that you’re the kind of student who will make positive contributions inside and outside the classroom. As such, you probably shouldn’t write a manifesto or a diary entry.
Choose a prompt that allows you to tell a story
When I applied to colleges in late 2013, the Common App featured the following prompt:
“Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”
This prompt had widespread appeal because it’s easy to think of a place where you feel calm and relaxed. For example, maybe you’d write about listening to music in your room. Unfortunately, the resulting essay would probably be stagnant, self-indulgent, and uninteresting for admissions officers to read. It’s definitely possible to write a good essay for a prompt like this, but it might be better to choose a question that actually compels you to portray yourself as proactive and continually improving. Here’s an example:
“The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to future success. Recount
It’s hard to write about failure and still look good, but this prompt would make it easier to show yourself as an up-and-coming young adult who cares about the outside world.
Don’t write your essay about how you’re writing your essay
If you want to stand out, why would you write about the only thing you have in common with every other applicant?
Find the right vantage point
In my junior year of high school, I wrote this sentence as the introduction for an AP English essay about the role of knowledge in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:
“Upon viewing the complex and intricate civilizations of humans past and present, it seems difficult to deny their inhabitants’ intellectual superiority in comparison to other living beings.”
This sentence is flowery for lots of reasons, but the main problem is that I talked about this:
When I really only wanted to talk about this:
Do you see what I mean? If you find yourself talking about “humanity” and its tendencies “throughout history,” you might have zoomed out too far. Since you only have 650 words, it’s a good idea to start your essay in the middle of the action rather than up in the clouds. For example, I could just as easily have started my AP English essay with the following sentence:
“In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, knowledge has a contradictory nature because it is simultaneously good and evil, sacred and profane, liberating and constraining.”
It’s not perfect, but it gets to the point.
Balance the concrete with the abstract
This is one of the most important principles to remember when you’re writing your essays. To show you what I mean, I’ll share some excerpts from an essay I wrote in high school.
This passage is concrete:
“The new house had yellow vinyl siding and red window boxes with nothing planted in them. In the backyard there was a basketball court and a small building on stilts about five feet off the ground. The people who lived there before us had painted it purple and green on the outside, and we called it the treehouse even though it wasn’t in a tree. My mother put a stepladder next to it so I could climb up whenever I wanted.”
This passage is abstract:
“I’ve been ascribing eighteen-year-old thought processes to my nine-year-old self, and that’s really pretentious even though pretentiousness is what I’ve always tried to avoid. I have all these made-up ideas in my head about my motives and feelings in the past, and for some reason they resonate with me more than whatever my real motives and feelings were.”
This passage has elements of both:
“I knew her because she was my neighbor; her parents ran a funeral home across the street. I used to ask if it bothered her, having dead bodies delivered to her house, but she said it didn’t. I was nervous the first time I went over, but it was just like a regular house except for the front room, which reminded me of a waiting room in a doctor’s office even though conceptually it was the opposite.”
The third paragraph is my favorite because it’s grounded in the reality of going over to my friend’s house—it’s more memorable than the second paragraph because it brings up a mental picture—but it also shows a tiny piece of my personality.
Use simple words
Big words are jarring and draw attention to themselves, so you should only include them in your essay if you want to highlight something important in the middle of an otherwise-simple sentence. Of course, make sure you use them correctly! I also recommend this Essay Hell article about specific words that have become overused.
It’s the same story with descriptors. “Adjectives and adverbs serve an important function, but you should be skeptical of them,” say the NY Book Editors. “When you see them in your own writing, ask yourself whether they’re necessary.” To me, adjectives and adverbs are like jewelry: they add charm, but it’s easy to overuse them to the point where they weigh you down. Rather than modifying a plain noun with lots of adjectives, it’s often better to choose a more descriptive noun and leave it unadorned.
Don’t be too formal
It’s a personal essay, not a business letter. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using contractions, starting sentences with “and” or “but,” or ending sentences with prepositions. These things don’t belong in every sentence, obviously, but you shouldn’t avoid them out of misguided scruples.
Disclaiming a cliché doesn’t make it okay
You should generally avoid clichés because they “lack specificity and complexity” and “do not make distinctive or memorable contributions to your writing.” This includes clichés preceded by “I know it’s a cliché.”
Be suspicious of yourself
Let me show you the next two sentences from my Frankenstein essay:
“No other organism possesses a brain large enough even to dream of philosophy textbooks or sheet music or vast expansion bridges held up by equations. No other creature aspires toward the future, envisions existence after its death, or ponders the inner workings of its own psyche.”
I was really proud of these sentences when I first wrote them, and I should have taken that as a sign that they needed a lot of editing. It’s easy to feel invincible when you’re using big words to talk about big ideas, but the old adage murder your darlings is based on the idea that “you have to get rid of your most precious and especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work.”
Logistically, this means you should start your essays relatively early so you can come back to them once you’ve stopped being infatuated with them.