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Writing A Killer Essay

Meet the Expert

Nick Plato has been working with high school students to reach their college dreams for over 14 years. Teaching history, English, philosophy, geography, and study skills in both public and private schools, Mr. Plato has worked with high school students as they make the transition into college. Years of editing and grading papers gives Mr. Plato a distinctive outlook on writing college essays. One of the most rewarding parts of his job is being in touch with past high school students as they successfully complete their college degrees and go on to be admirable adults with their own families and careers.

I love Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. One scene has permanently captured my imagination. The climax of the movie takes place in a cave where the Holy Grail has been protected for centuries by an ancient knight of the Crusades. The climactic moment arrives when Indiana has to choose the right cup of Christ among hundreds of frauds present in the cave. The wise choice (and drink) results in immortal life and the wrong choice ends in death. A death, those who’ve seen this great flick recall, is graphically displayed. The antagonist chose poorly, aged 100 years in five seconds and then exploded into subatomic particles. Whoops. In contrast, forced with many options and no time, Indy wisely chooses the humble wooden cup of a carpenter and brings it to his dying father amidst falling ancient pillars and a supernatural earthquake. He then gives his dying father a drink, pours some of the immortal waters on his mortal bullet wound, and miraculously Dr. Jones Sr. is healed. Indiana then promptly escapes death and his friends ride into the sunset while viewers enjoy the unforgettable theme song by John Williams inviting us to the next adventure.

If you can hear the music, then peer inside this magic scene for the best advice in writing college essays. Be like Indiana. Be adventurous and choose wisely. Now, if you’re ready, grab your Indiana hat, trusty whip, and treasure map and you’ll be well on your adventure to writing a killer college essay.

Be adventurous: English writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton said, “An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” Are you thinking the essay an inconvenience or an adventure? If the essay is a task to complete with minimal effort and time, it won’t be a good essay. Instead, think adventurously, use your imagination. You are writing an essay to get into the school where the greatest chapters of your story will be written.

In my 15 years of teaching I’ve read essays that bored my socks off, but also been amazed to read essays that shimmer like gold. Undoubtedly, the difference is the mindset, well before any writing is undertaken. The boring essays are approached as tasks to complete, lines to fill up, boxes to check, and inconveniences to get through. The shimmering essays are imaginative artwork. They are approached as stories to tell, a medium of masterful self-expression, a challenge to win. What will be your motivation? To check off a box on a to-do list, or to go on an adventure to defeat Voldemort, destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom, or recover the Holy Grail. Will you think of your essay as an inconvenience or an adventure?

Take time: Okay Frodo, let’s go destroy that ring. Almost everything good in life takes time, the journey to Mordor, good relationships, Albert Einstein’s discoveries, Edison’s inventions – great essays are no different. Though this may seem obvious it has to be fought for – you gotta fight to make time and fight the temptation to rush. The problem isn’t in believing that taking time minimizes stress and maximizes productivity, the problem is actually acting like we believe it. Starting early is a must to spending focused, non-multi-tasking time. If you’re not used to this, be patient with yourself and remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Dig deep: To actually find the Holy Grail took Indiana Jones some serious digging. He had to decipher the Grail diary, decode the map, trudge through rats in the sewer, attain the etching from the tomb of Sir Richard, fight the Nazis, and of course, escape death with style! Grails simply won’t be found without digging and neither will superb college essays. For those you’ll have to dig deep into yourself and the college you think fits you best. Now, hopefully you’ve taken the choice of colleges seriously and done your homework regarding why college X or Y fits best with your goals. If not, please stop, do not pass go, do not collect $200 dollars and go spend quality time doing this. If you’ve narrowed down the schools you think best for you, do some honest self-reflection. What do you love? What can’t you live without? What makes you fired up? What are your greatest memories? Contemplate these and more for a bit and jot some ideas down. The most common advice for writing good essays from admissions counselors, high school teachers, to websites that help make the transition to college is to be honest and personal.

Choose wisely: Do not be like the antagonist professor in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade who chose poorly. First, because you certainly don’t want to rapidly age until you explode, but secondly, because you truly want the valor of the Knight and cleverness of Indiana. For every assignment, writing or project, I start with teaching my students to choose what most interests them, what they feel most strongly about. There is some law in the universe that the more you put into something the more you get out. To choose what to write requires following the previous advice of taking time and digging deep, all mindsets prior to actually writing. Another aspect of choosing wisely regards the prompt. Be sure to address it completely and with focus. If the prompt is open-ended, this requires you to make a wise, focused, and honest choice on what to write that best expresses yourself.

Imitate the best: Nobody becomes great at anything without imitating someone else great. Would there be a Kobe Bryant without Michael Jordan? Would there be a MLK Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement without the non-violent philosophy of Mahatma Ghandi? Would there be a Plato without Socrates? Would there be a Mother Theresa without Jesus? The fact is, greatness inspires greatness. A cursory glance using google for great college essay samples is a must for finding what to imitate. Reading some of these great essays will also help kick start the brainstorming.

George Orwell's rules for writing:
  • 1Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • 2Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • 3If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • 4Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • 5Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • 6Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

Jack London

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time - or the tools - to write. Simple as that.

Stephen King

Write drunk, edit sober.

Ernest Hemingway

The first draft of everything is shit.

Ernest Hemingway

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

E.B. White

Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be

Mark Twain

I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.

E.B. White

Okay, you are on the adventure with your Indiana whip, hat, and map. You’ve started early, are taking time to do self-reflection and know which colleges you want and why, even read a good number of successful essays, now what?

For some practical advice on how to write an essay, check out:

10 Commandments for College Essays
1Thou shall not expect the process to be painless

Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” The science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut said "When I write I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth." Expect to get frustrated, throw away a bunch of drafts, delete great sentences, and want to give up. Then when those feelings happen, you’ll be prepared. Take a walk, drink some coffee, get out pen and paper instead of a computer and have another go – just don’t give up.

2Thou shalt have a writing process

Writing is hard work for most non-super humans. If you are a non-superhuman stick to the process that works: brainstorm, outline, write, edit, proofread. Check out Purdue Writing Lab – especially passive vs. active voice – this is a given for good writing.

In my experience students often find the most difficult part of an essay is actually starting. For this, one remedy is to get a little inspiration by reading other great essays. Another remedy is a good old pen and pencil. Just start writing whatever comes to mind. Let the draft and ideas flow knowing many of the ideas will be trashed before the one treasure is discovered.
Their is a reason the outline has been tried and true for many years. If you don’t outline prior to writing, I’d recommend trying it. As a teacher I’ve found many struggling souls aided by outlining even after they’ve written a draft. Whether peer editing or self-editing, outlining what is already written helps reveal logical coherence (or incoherence) and a topic focus or lack thereof.
If possible, find a place that’s private where you’ll be undisturbed. Turn off multi-tasking gadgets, get some tea or coffee, and decide to spend a set time on writing, but don’t wait for ideal conditions. If that doesn’t work, don’t do it. If you work best in a busy coffee shop, do it. If you focus best listening to 21 Pilots, do it. For me, I set time limits and goals which help me be effective and productive with minimized interruptions from Snapchat, Twitter, and other time killers. There’s no step by step dogma revealed from on high that eliminates effort and pain, so again, adventurous spirit and determination are vital to success.
Being a teacher during the rise and dominance of computer technology, I can tell you along with millions of other educators – there is an ubiquitous lack of editing in all writing. I believe the reason we don’t edit well is we’re deceived. When we write on screens things look good. We hit spell-check. We add a snazzy title and font. It all looks finished and we don’t have any computer prompts telling us there’s a problem, so we believe the lie. The remedy for this widespread deception is, at minimum, to have a friend, acquaintance, and yourself edit at the bare minimum. I can tell you, I’ve never graded a paper where I thought, “Hmmm, this paper is over edited.”
3Thou shalt not lie

Admissions counselors can detect disingenuous essays, pretenders, exaggerators, copy cats, and liars. The internet is chalk full of college admissions counselors testifying to this reality. Believe me - don’t even try to pull a fast one.

4Thou shalt be personal, but not sappy

Do not write your entire history from your first word, the time you moved, the girlfriends or boyfriends you’ve had, all the lessons you’ve learned or didn’t learn in middle school, etc. – spare the sappy stories and details. Focus on something specific that is personal and expresses your soul by sticking to a few, but well developed main points.

5Thou shalt have a killer first line

I don’t like long first sentences. I find a short, pithy sentence best. Tell a story, it is more interesting than mere telling of facts. Write something that piques curiosity and brings up questions. Unfortunately your Jedi training in high school may kill your ability to write a killer first sentence. The essay commonly taught in many high schools is a boring expository essay. My advice - save that for an AP History Exam. There’s nothing worse than reading an essay that reads like bullet points after a first sentence that tells what the bullet points are going to be. Be adventurous! Be creative! Here are some examples of some killer first lines from great writers, past students of mine and a slew from a google search.

  • Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Yes, this violates the short sentence preference I have, but it accomplished the purpose of hooking the reader.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” What advice? I can relate to this. I wonder what advice changed this person’s life…again, this accomplishes the capturing of my attention.
  • The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane – “The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.” Using simple verbs, adverbs, nouns, etc. can do wonders. This descriptive sentence creates sense images that jump start the imagination. You might try adding descriptive words that create images.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Why? Is the weather bad? Did the author have something else to do? How did the author feel about this?
Each of these great lines create questions that draw the reader in. They don’t use words nobody knows, or explain what’s next. They are all interesting and lead the reader to the next sentence. Will your first sentence lead the reader to the next one?
  • Actual: “During my sophomore year of high school, I explored an opportunity that I initially bore no significant interest in: Science Team, an annual statewide competition that involves the usage of the sciences within a variety of events.”
    • This is too long, not very creative, and doesn’t draw the reader, cause questions, or start a story.
  • Another line in the same essay said, “Suddenly, faced with a decision to bail out or to take control, I decided to dive in.” This would function as great first sentence. It creates a question by starting a story. It invites the reader to enter in an open door, to come find out, to enter into a story with the writer.
  • Actual: “After months and months of meticulous planning, I arrived in Titanyen, Haiti to discover we were short on all of the supplies we needed to complete renovations for Titanyen’s local orphanage.”
    • This has potential, a story has started and the reader is drawn in. I might suggest dividing this into two sentences, adding descriptive words, and even some emotions.
  • “After months of meticulous planning, I arrived in Haiti.” This simple change might invite the reader to wonder “what did he do in Haiti?” and sets up the next sentence to draw one into the story even more. It could be edited to look like this: “Being task-oriented, I stepped off into the sweltering heat unperturbed and ready to accomplish the goals of renovating the local orphanage, only to find out we were short on necessary materials.”
    • This change keeps the essentials but adds a personal characteristic, “task-oriented,” adds the descriptive word “sweltering,” and sets up the well done conclusion of this essay that goals and tasks aren’t everything, but being present with someone else is what true help is.
  • I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks.
  • On a hot Hollywood evening, I sat on a bike, sweltering in a winter coat and furry boots.
  • I have been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old.
  • Some fathers might disapprove of their children handling noxious chemicals in the garage.
  • I have old hands.
  • "My fingers twitched at my side, itching to pick up the prosthetic."
  • "She was naked, and I was scared."
  • The journey of Taekwondo is analogous to the journey of life.
  • "The summer air was sweet and caring as we sat there, drank some rootbeer and pondered the cosmos."
  • "In the temperate winter of my tenth grade year, I developed an interest in rap music."
  • When I was in eighth grade I couldn’t read.
  • Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Bhimanagar slum dwelling in Bangalore, I ran my fingers across a fresh cut on my forehead.
6Thou shall not be saved by spell-check alone

Good old-fashioned, time-consuming, painful editing is a must. This is my #1 lesson when teaching writing to my high school students.

7Thou shalt KISS

It’s cliché, but the KISS principle is worth remembering. Keep It Simple Stupid! Don’t expect the essay to be perfect and don’t expect it to do more than it can. Admissions counselors want to read with interest a well-written, honest, concisely answered prompt that reveals who you are and why you fit at their college.

8Thou shalt not write about things already included in your application

Admissions counselors already have an idea of what clubs you have belonged to, what sports you have played, what your grades are, and what city you are from. They don’t want to read those facts again. Don’t write a boring laundry-list essay about what you participated in during your high school years.

9Thou shalt show not tell

For example, Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light of broken glass.” Tell a story, use clear simple verbs, and ditch the thesaurus.

10Thou shalt talk it out

Honestly, we all get to a point where we just need to talk it out. It may greatly help. Read your essay out loud to a friend who knows you well, then talk it out. What do they say? Does it sound like you? Is it honest, clear, and concise? What’s their advice? What would they change? Another idea is to read it to someone who doesn’t know you well. They may bring an objectivity without worrying about offending you. What impression do they get about you from the essay? If there’s a way to get another classmate you don’t know at all, you can add even more perspective. Expect the draft to be far from perfect, take criticism, and make appropriate edits.

One final word...
Nothing great was produced in a day. Relax, enjoy the process and put some much needed thought, time, and energy into your essay. Your hard work will pay off in the end.
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