Kurt Vonnegut Can Help You Go to College: Part 1 of 2

A lot of writers try as best they can to adhere to, or at least keep in mind, the Eight Rules for Writing of Kurt Vonnegut (author of Cat’s Cradle andSlaughterhouse-Five, among many others). While the rules are generally for fiction writers, they all are equally useful guidelines when you are writing your college essay.

Spoiler alert: they’re not easy, and you won’t master all of them between now and January 1. But if you test your essay against these, you may see some weaknesses that you can fix. And, hey, that’s something.

8 Rules for Writing  

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

This could not be more important in a college admission essay. As we’ve said many times before, the final selection of students comes down to those who can distinguish themselves beyond just grades and test scores.  If the personal essay doesn’t tell the admissions officer anything more than what they already got from the rest of your application, it’s essentially a waste of time. Tell them something about you that is useful (and advantageous) that they don’t already know.

2.  Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

If your instinct is, “That’s easy, I’ll be the subject of the essay.”, then you’re missing the point. Canroot for is a little misleading – what Mr. Vonnegut means is to want to root for, to be emotionally invested in. If your story isn’t compelling enough – if you are not compelling enough — then the reader won’t really care that you successfully saved a burning orphanage (or whatever).  You need the reader to connect with someone in your story — that way they care about what happens.

By the way, you — the applicant — don’t have to be the character they are rooting for. If you were trying to teach someone – call him Harry — to read, the story can be about their struggle to overcome their illiteracy. Naturally, in the end, you’ll need to bring the story back around to you and how it impacted your life – but the story’s hero, so to speak, doesn’t have to be you.

One of the best ways to make the reader care is for the character to want something, and then the reader becomes attached to whether that character gets it. Which leads us to…

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

To illustrate this, let’s continue with the example of Harry, who can’t read.  What does he want? To learn to read. Done. The trick of course is then to write it in such a compelling way that the reader also wants Harry to learn. (We know some people who can help. . .oh come on, one shameless plug.)

Because we’re talking about college admission essays, you are also a character, and you also need to show what you want — and why. Harry might be the one we’re rooting for, which makes the essay draw us in, but why do you care if he can read – that’s what the admissions officer wants to know.

You’ve probably already described the literacy organization in the activities section of the application – but that just tells the admissions officer that you did it. The essay about Harry is the chance to show who you are, and who we are can be revealed by what we want. Do you know personally someone with special learning challenges who can never learn to read, and you want to make sure all who can, do? Do you want to be an educator, and this was a first step in that direction? The first is an emotional driver, the second professional. Neither is wrong – both types of people add value to a college community. But you can see how this shows who you are and what you want in a way that other parts of your application just can’t. Fun, huh? Ok. . . fine, moving on.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

College essays are short. You have to get to where you’re going. . .fast. Every sentence should be loaded with purpose, and they should either keep the story moving forward, or show us something about who the characters are as a result of those events. Write your first draft, then go back and read each sentence and ask yourself, why do I have this sentence? What purpose does it serve?  Did I already say it, but in a different way? If you do this well, your story will be tight and your reader will eat it up, they’ll sail through it to find out what happens next. Unnecessary language, and the story begins to drag and the reader has to power through. (You don’t want an admissions officer trying to power through your personal essay.)  And remember, watching Harry learn to read advances the action, but the character we need to learn about is you — how you were impacted by Harry’s conquer of illiteracy. In the end, it needs to be clear how this experience impacted who you were, who you are, who you want to be. This is The You Show. You’re the one who picked this school. Not Harry.

Ok, enough for now.

For the complete rules, see our e-book, How Kurt Vonnegut Can Help You Get Into College.

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