Six Things You Must Do Before You Push Submit

It’s getting damn close to the due date for college applications. So, in the midst of all the pressure, you might well be getting to that place of just crashing and saying, “I can’t do this anymore, I’m just sending it. No one deserves to live this way. I want my real life back.” Problem is, you won’t have a real life next year if you don’t get through this. Yeah, we’re not so much with the soft and fluffy. Anyway. Man up. You’re almost there. Do not succumb to crazy town until you go through the following with the essay. Then you can push send, start to drool, or curl under the bed. But you probably just need some cupcakes and sleep.

1. Read the essay out loud to another person. You didn’t write the essay for yourself, you wrote it for someone else (the keeper of the keys to the School You Really Want to Get Into), so read it aloud to someone, it always reveals something different about the writing than reading the paper in your head. And reading aloud to yourself doesn’t work either. Don’t know why. Doesn’t matter.

2. “Read” it backwards. You’ll in fact, stop reading and actually look at each word, making it more likely that you don’t skim over spelling errors. The more you’ve worked on the essay, the more you’ll benefit from this trick, because you’ve basically begun to memorize bits of the essay and now you are not reading, you’re reciting, which means you are not actually looking at the words on the paper. Neat, huh? No, not neat. You’re supposed to be making sure that this piece of paper is in top form. So look at each word in reverse order to force your brain to stop with the mental gymnastics and play editor.

3. Rethink your title. There is an instinct to slap on a title as an afterthought, but actually it’s a missed opportunity to make a great entrance into the room. The title isn’t a deal breaker – a great essay will save itself — but why not start strong? Just stop and reconsider the title.

4. Rework your first line. No, rework it again – you just paused briefly and told yourself it was ok. Probably isn’t – sorry, it’s just that when you start writing an essay, you just…start. And that’s great, that’s how you get sh*t on a piece of paper and start moving forward and have anything productive. But then begins the heavy lifting of revising. And often people are a couple of lines into the essay before they really start concentrating. And this happens every time you revise, so every time that first sentence is the stepchild of the revision process. So write just the first line of the essay in the center of a blank sheet of paper. Is it powerful? Professional writers are constantly told how they can seduce a reader (and an editor, which is the keeper of the readers, and in your case, the admissions officer, which is the keeper of the thick envelopes) with just that first line. If you don’t believe it, walk into a bookstore and flip through a couple of books and read the first few lines of each and see which ones you want you want to keep reading. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” No, you can’t use that one.

5. Check spelling. Check spelling. Check the spelling!! Do you know how annoying and embarrassing and awful it’s going to look if you misspelled a word on your college application essay? If you’re on the Common Application, it’s 650 words. Max. And you might have done it in less. If you must, do 20 words at a time, eat an apple, come back and do 20 more. Come to 5 Hundred Words and have us do it, if you don’t trust yourself – that’s not a shameless plug, it’s not — what we’re saying here is, there is zero reason for anything to go out with something as basic as spelling not perfect. Consider this: “I saw her walk out the door, and thought to myself, ‘their goes the love of my life’, and I collapsed.” We don’t love the sentence anyway (never mind) but now we’re so distracted by the misspelling that…ick, ew…just…moving on. In fact, if we were college admissions officers and saw a misspelled word we’d stop reading, cuz, really, screw you. Last year Columbia had over 33,000 applicants, and even with a team of 20 essay readers (which might well be generous) that’s more than 1500 essays per person, and now we gotta read the joker who either 1) doesn’t know “their” from “there”, or 2) didn’t care enough to spell check? Next.

6. Punctuation too. Why? Because you can seriously damage your whole sentence with mucked up punctuation. Spelling crap looks sloppy; punctuation crap will ruin your life. “I’m about to eat that bro.” which obviously should have been, “I’m about to eat that, bro.” Again, the sentence itself is a hot mess, but the first one is also fratricide, which pretty much moots the grammar quality control issues. And your chances of admission, since that isn’t the kind of thing schools want on campus, if they can avoid it.

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What The Walking Dead Can Teach You About Revision

If you have never watched The Walking Dead, hopefully you at least know the basic premise. For the last three of you living under a rock, in a cave, beneath the ocean, here it is. A team of live humans run around a post-apocalyptic Atlanta, trying to avoid being attacked by nearly dead humans, who have just enough brain stem activity left to walk (hence they are called “the walking dead” or “walkers”). In many episodes, friends and relatives of the live humans die and turn into walkers.  The only way to put down a walker is to shoot or stab it in the head. As you can imagine, this is very upsetting to the live humans, because they are attached emotionally to the person who the walker once was, even though they now have a decaying corpse trying to eat them. (Oh yeah, we forgot to say the walkers are trying not only to attack, but eat, the live humans. You gotta watch it, to get it.)

In writing, we have our own walkers that we have to kill. The common expression is “Kill your darlings.” Darlings are gorgeous, Faulkner/Hemingway/Joyce sentences that have been fortunate enough to come out of your pen. You emotionally attach to these sentences, to their perfect poetry, their carefree wit, their musicality and balance. You envision your Pulitzer speech, as you quote…yourself.

Four drafts later, you’ve revised the chapter beyond recognition. Fortunately, it’s now tighter, better organized and more compelling. But. You have carefully preserved your darling, revising all around it. You can’t bear to admit that it has now lost its purpose, and it’s decayed into a shell of what it once was, causing a funky smell in the middle of your revised passage. Once beautiful, perhaps, but now it’s killing the integrity of the revised work. A sentence that seems beautiful but serves no purpose is a walker.  Stab it in the head and live to fight another day.

You’d be surprised how easy it is to fall victim to this, and in college essays, real estate is limited so you have to be particularly ruthless.  But how can you even tell what is a darling? First of all, you love the sentence. This doesn’t mean that every sentence you love is a darling, but if you didn’t love the sentence, and it served no purpose you would have already mercilessly cut it. (Similarly, on The Walking Dead, the live humans don’t hesitate to kill the walkers that are strangers.) So if you love it, look carefully to make sure it’s still alive – moves forward action, reveals character, or at the least, builds purposeful, critical description. If not, you should smell the rotting stench of a dead sentence. Recognize that you just like how it sounds. It has dramatic flair. You sound smart, sensitive, eloquent. But it’s not doing a damn thing. Yeah, we’ve been there. Kill it.

Since darlings aren’t actually cannibalistic zombies (and since this metaphor has been stretched to the very limits of its usefulness), you can just cut it and paste it into a new document and save it. Unlike the walkers, perhaps you can bring it back to life in some other essay. Hey, if you don’t get into college this year, you’ve already got one line done of next year’s applications. So there’s that.

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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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Words That Suck and How to Avoid Them. (Or, why ‘little’ and ‘very’ are cheap as* words.)

If you’re knee deep in your essay, or knee deep in thinking about writing your essay, here’s a heads up once you’ve got a first draft. It’s a way of making sure that you haven’t slipped into lazy writing, which basically means not thinking about your word choices. You should be choosing a filet mignon of the English lexicon and instead you’ve slapped down Salisbury steak. Which is barely meat, let alone steak.

Don’t do that.

Go through the whole thing and check for words like this: very, little, small, big, really ( when used like very) and circle them in a red pen. They must go. Pick them off like lice on a schoolboy.

Here’s why. Let’s use very, the dark lord of crap words. Very is cheap runny catchup on a bad burger.

How is that not clear?

Ok, you’re eating some overcooked sawdust beef patty and there’s nothing you can do. So you desperately reach for a packet of the off brand, runny, flavorless catsup. Did it help? Not really.

If you look behind every very you might well see your overcooked sawdust adjective or adverb. You chose a crappy, lazy word — little, small, big, fast, loud, quiet. In desperation you slapped ‘very’ on it to save it. That’s a bullsh*t move. Just pick a great word in the first place.

Here’s an example: Loud. Loud? Seriously? You’re better than that. And here’s a hint and a half — if you could say the word when you were four, maybe you should up the vocab stakes. Show those college folks you went to…English class.

Why would you say ‘very loud’? If it’s important to the story that some moment was loud, put some decent clothes on that moment. Maybe it boomed, crashed, exploded? Was it deafening, obliterating? You’re familiar with the SAT, yes?

Oh, look — ‘very deafening’ is redundant. See? If you are good to your words they will be good to you. In fact, if you use a word that just sounds weird with very — like very enormous (what would that look like, exactly?), chances are high that you have chosen a nice quality descriptor.

So use good words. And by good (another likely sawdust contender), I mean dynamic, emotive, evocative, soulful words that come with their own zing and flavor and don’t need a crappy catsup word like very to prop them up.

You get the idea.

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