Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner
This is the conclusion of a two part series. For part 1 please click here.
Using Your Words
The technical aspects of writing an application essay are no different than writing any other essay. Unfortunately, confidence can wane when applying to your top-choice school. If you have an outline and know how to convey your personal information, it’s time to work on finding your voice through the correct use of words. Nervous essayists rely on cliché, generalizations, passivity, and hyperbole or humor. These are the occasional-writer’s default settings because they are easy to hide behind.
A cliché, in terms of essay writing, is a well-known phrase or use of words with no attributable author or source, such as run rampant, no question about it, nerves of steel, and the like. There are thousands of such phrases, and we use them in communication every day. They are so common, they are nearly imperceptible. Again, imagine reading thousands of personal statements. The redundancy of these phrases will begin to suck your life away. The problem is that these are not the words of a conscientious applicant, they are the words of someone who cannot turn a simple original phrase. When working with students, this is where the gloves come off, and where I ruffle lots of feathers. People don’t like hearing that they aren’t original, or that their personal essay isn’t actually personal, but trite or cliché.
However, to avoid them, just read the phrase and ask yourself why you chose it. Simple as that. If you use the phrase runs rampant, odds are you decided to use that phrase because you noticed repetition. There’s your keyword: repetition. So, if we’re discussing Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, we could either say:
Deceit and betrayal run rampant throughout the novel.
Deceit and betrayal, Dostoevsky’s favorite character flaws, are repeated to a point of comic nuisance throughout the novel.
Cliché phrases only harm your writing. Personal stories are received better when they’re 100% personal and your voice is identifiable. If I want to talk about overcoming a hardship, I want to make it meaningful and personal:
I spent several months in rehab after flying off my Harley ass-over-teakettle, setting back my graduation schedule.
My motorcycle accident put me face down in the bottom of a ravine. I dragged most of my weight uphill, my legs useless. While alive, I spent the remainder of the semester in rehab, and as a result my graduation schedule was set back a year.
Generalizations are just as bad as cliché. They occur when a writer assumes one sentiment for an entire population or uses a few opinions to assume unified public opinion:
Everybody knows universal healthcare is the only viable option for the future.
Witnessing the situation in Haiti firsthand, I was overcome with the sadness that the rest of the world feels for that forgotten place.
The truth about generalizations is that some people are adamant about no public options for healthcare and some people don’t care what happens in Haiti. Overlooking these sentiments is quite literally to write with blinders on and to present yourself to admissions officers as oblivious or obtuse. Remember, your essay is about you, not the rest of the world:
As a physician, I would devote my professional career to championing public healthcare.
I assumed my impression of Haiti to be exaggerated, but witnessing the situation as a Red Cross volunteer proved all descriptions understated.
One of the biggest “tells” in an essay is the use of passive-voice rather than active-voice. It’s also the easiest to correct because the difference is visual, but its impact is much deeper. Passive voice turns the object of a sentence into the subject, placing the subject second in the reader’s mind.
My time in Nicaragua was spent wisely, focusing on preservation and community involvement.
I spent my time wisely in Nicaragua, focusing on preservation and community involvement.
In both sentences, time is spent wisely, but in the second example, the speaker, I, acts directly. The grammatical explanation is not very interesting, but the effect on the reader is profound. In the first sentence, my time gives the reader a vague sense of a speaker, and the message they take away is that, while in Nicaragua, someone focused on preservation and community involvement. The second sentence, on the other hand, gives the reader the impression that the writer is a doer and is able to take control of a situation. When a writer says, “I did x,” the reader believes that the writer can do x.
Hyperbole and humor should be avoided in the application essay for multiple reasons. Foremost, you want to portray yourself as direct and sincere, which are the opposite of hyperbole and humor. Additionally, they are difficult to accomplish successfully. Writing, “I have seen a billion tooth extractions,” will raise eyebrows. You’ve seen billions of teeth? It’s doubtful that even a retired dentist has seen billions of teeth, much less billions of tooth extractions. Best to stick with a more concrete description, “I witness, on average, twenty tooth extractions a week.”
Humor, on the other hand, relies on a receptive audience and good timing. In an essay, you have no real control over either. You have no idea who your audience is or what their humor is like, and you especially have no idea if they’ll be receptive to a joke at the exact time they read your essay. While your humor may serve you well in in-person interviews, don’t rely on it to carry your essay.
Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough
The phrase “good enough” should only be used to say, “This essay is good enough to submit.” Unfortunately, this phrase is usually uttered in terms of, “I’ve spent too much time on this essay, it’s good enough.” Giving up on an essay is a certain way to be rejected or overlooked. Utilizing a writing lab or tutor to read and help revise your essay multiple times will polish your essay, making it good enough to submit. Misplaced commas, run-on sentences, misspellings, and improper subject-verb agreement are the most common errors made in any paper at any level of education, and are overlooked by the writer in spite of attentive editing. An accomplished personal statement is the result of careful planning (you’ve allotted enough time to outline, write, edit, and revise), intentional word usage and sentence structure, and allowing your story to be told with clarity and true voice. As a result, you present yourself professionally to your admissions officers, showing that your personality is one that will mesh well with their program, and that you care to purse, nurture, and present your best qualities.
If you haven’t already remember to check out part one.