The Specific Sells

The Specific Sells

I recently had a client that had an essay question, “If you could have a contemporary guest speaker come to the university, who would it be and why?” This is a very similar question to another essay prompt, “If you could have dinner with one person in history, who would it be and way?”

Without fail, I could tell you the five most common answers to both of these questions, and I guarantee you probably nearly half of the applicants will list those options (politician, religious figure, sports star, music star, or entrepreneur of the day–just cut and paste and you’ll get your answer). Thus, it didn’t surprise me too greatly when the client said “Elon Musk” as his answer.

Naturally, I wrote to him and explained my concern that while Elon Musk would certainly make for a compelling speaker and the university would undoubtedly sell out its tickets, it didn’t make for a great presentation. 80 percent of the planet wants to hear Elon Musk speak, and in over 95 percent of those essay questions, the reason would invariably revolve around “his creativity,” “his vision,” “his work ethic,” or something else.

When he called me back, though, he brought up an interesting point that not many people do–Elon Musk not only runs two different companies right now (a car manufacturer and a space shuttle producer), he came from a third different type of company (PayPal, or a finance company). Because this client wanted to double-dip in both business and medicine, he explained that he wanted to learn how Musk managed to lead companies of such disparate differences.

This specific reason was something I had never heard before. But what made me even more sure of something was when he mentioned an obscure (in America, at least) physician in Germany who started as a surgeon but eventually became a massive investor worth billions of dollars. I had never heard of this surgeon before, but I could see specifically how this person would make for great dinner conversation with my client.

And that’s when I realized a point that I’ve known for some time but had never been able to say so succinctly  specificity sells.

It’s All In the Details

Whether you’re writing a creative essay like this, a report about your favorite city in Europe, or a dissertation for graduate school, one rule has always risen above the rest–the specific details are the difference between a boring paper and a great one.

Why? Just imagine someone told you about their favorite vacation and it was in Berlin. You ask them what they liked about it. “I dunno, it was just cool being in a foreign country and seeing new cultures and stuff.” Sure, that’s informative, but it’s boring and doesn’t tell you anything. That quote could be applied to literally any foreign country in the world–there’s nothing to differentiate Germany from everything else based on those words.

Conversely, imagine they had said, “I got to see the Berlin Wall and many of the streets and architecture that became famous from early 20th century photos. I got to experience German museums explaining the Holocaust and other historical events, and I got to try German beer with a German couple from Munich. They explained the difference between Munich and Berlin.”

Now that is interesting! You have a clear picture of what happened, you get details that clearly set it apart from other countries, and it even provides a taste of something most people don’t get on their trips–beers with locals.

You have to think along the same lines of your essay. “I was someone who enjoyed acting in musicals, and the most significant one was when I did Fiddler on the Roof,” only tells us what your favorite one was. “When I stood on stage, performing for my grandparents for the first time, and belted out the word ‘Tradition’ in my baritone voice, I got shivers thinking about what this production of Fiddler on the Roof meant to them,” implies a much stronger story (albeit with a sentence that should probably be split into two).

Specificity sells. Sell yourself to the admissions committee and get into your dream school.

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Quick Reminder: This Is NOT An English Essay

A common refrain I hear from clients is “I’m worried about this because I’m not a good writer,” in large part based on their English essay grades. While I understand what this is saying, this is equivalent to saying, “I’m not a good athlete.” It implies something, but for the sake of the discussion, it’s not specific enough. A basketball athlete? A tennis athlete? A baseball athlete?

Thus, when I get that question, I in turn typically ask my clients, “what kind of writing have you done?” For 90 percent of high school students, the answers will revolve around class essays for English, history, and a few other subjects. Occasionally, you’ll get the student who has worked for the school newspaper or writes a blog that actually gets traffic, but those students wouldn’t be saying “I’m not a good writer.”

The reason I ask this is simple–your college essay is NOT an English essay.

You will need to follow certain rules such as proper grammar, good flow, and compelling content, but this is not a literary analysis or a historical thesis paper. This is your story. This is your life, come to being on the page. This is creative writing, but it’s not really creating something so much as it is bearing the most compelling part of you that already exists.

So no, you don’t need to be a good English essay writer to write a good personal statement. You don’t need to have gotten an A on all of your research papers to feel confident about your application essays. You just need your most compelling story, a willingness to do a few drafts, and a willingness to tell the truth of your story in full.

Writing Tip #4: Use the Active Voice

Writing Tip #4: Use the Active Voice

Active Voice for an Active Reader

Do you know what puts readers to sleep faster than a boring story? Not the active voice. A passive one.

I find it fascinating, though, how with the right language, someone can turn what would seem like a monotonous event into a dramatic, exciting moment with the right verbs.

While this post will not entirely avoid passive verbs (destroying your flow for the sake of having active verbs will kill your reader’s interest faster than an uninteresting story), it will set out to make the argument that using “is,” “are,” “be,” and any other forms of such a verb will make your writing uninteresting and, as a result, bore the reader–in this case, the admissions officer at your dream school.

Passive Is Boring

“I was captain” sounds a lot weaker than “My teammates elected me captain.” A passive voice is boring.

An active voice reads like a compelling novel. You want your work to grab the reader by the throat, shake them, and command their attention. “I am smart, hard-working, and disciplined” is boring (and common). “I study five hours a night, work 15 hours a week for my father’s construction company, and go to bed at the same time every night, including weekends” paints a picture of who you are.

The passive voice is easy to write. (I just did it right there.) It’s not a death wish to write in that form. But when you use active verbs, it becomes easier for the reader to feel a part of the story. Imagine the difference here:

“Swinging a bat is hard.”

“I swung the bat as the fastball blazed by me at 90 miles per hour, my hands anticipating the ball’s location before it had even left the pitcher’s hand.”

Which one is easier to imagine yourself in?

Actively Delete Your Passivity

Look for all your verbs that are forms of “to be.” Can you delete them?

It isn’t always necessary—this section so far has multiple such forms alone. But searching for them and identifying them will allow you to make a judgment call on if you can delete them or not. More often than not, deleting them will significantly improve the flow, quality, and the level your essay captivates the reader.

It doesn’t always work that way, though. If the flow worsens because of your change, then delete. For example, no one would ever say “My name designates me as Stephen,” they would just say “I’m Stephen.” Common sense applies here. It also helps to have someone else read your essay out loud and gauge their reaction. Do they start speaking like a man in front of an audience? Or do they scrunch their eyes in confusion at what they are reading?

No matter what, in general, err toward active voice. It’ll make for an active and, thus, more interested reader.

Want to have a professional actively work on your essay writing? Let me help you get into your dream school.

Want to know everything about writing essays for your applications? Find out everything you need to know here.

Writing Tip #3: Don’t Repeat Yourself

Writing Tip #3: Don’t Repeat Yourself

Rarely, if ever, is this a literal error. If it is, it’s one that even the most novice of writers can correct. You just don’t see “I play basketball for fun. I play basketball for fun.” So what do I mean when I say “don’t repeat yourself?”

The problem is when you write two sentences back to back that don’t add any new information. For example, you might say, “While I worked at the summer camp, I learned a lot about communicating with underprivileged children. These kids taught me how to speak with people I wouldn’t normally spend time with.” There’s just not enough unique information to justify turning this into two sentences. Following in the steps of the previous problem, it’s better to write “That summer, I learned how to communicate with underprivileged children, a group I normally wouldn’t hang out with.”

This problem relates to the one about “Be Concise.” If you’re able to avoid redundancy, you can create more room for unique content. But if you end up saying the same thing over and over, the reader gets bored and thinks, “Yeah, I get it.” You don’t want that.

Go through your sentences. Does each one add a unique element? If you deleted it, would the essay as a whole lose any information? I like to look at each sentence and the sentence that came before and after it. I may not delete it entirely, but if I can merge it with one, then I will do that for brevity and to avoid redundancy.

In short, don’t do what this paragraph does. Don’t do what the words in this paragraph do.

Don’t repeat yourself.

Want to have a professional handle your essay writing? Let me help you get into your dream school.

Want to know everything about writing essays for your applications? Find out everything you need to know here.

Writing Tip #2: Work in Silence to Avoid Distractions

Writing Tip #2: Work in Silence to Avoid Distractions

Distractions, Distractions, Distractions

In my house, trying to avoid distractions feels like a Herculean task. I have a TV and video games. I have two very needy, large dogs who love to wake me up before my alarm goes off. My roommates like to make noise as they cook and go about their day. I have work not related to writing college essays, friends who want to hang out, friends who won’t stop texting me… The distractions can seem endless.

And that’s in the best case scenario. If I go to a coffee shop or even a library, well, I can’t control the space. Distractions become the rule, not the exception.

In some ways, you can’t even call what surrounds you distractions. If you’re good enough, you can tune out the white noise and the pings from your smart phone. Some people truly have that ability.

But in general? It’s the exception to the rule. Your goal shouldn’t be to overcome distractions. Your goal should be to eliminate them entirely, or put yourself in a spot where they don’t even become an issue.

Defeat Distractions Through Avoiding Them

When I write, to avoid distractions, I do so in utter silence in a room devoid of anything except my laptop, my desk, my chair, a whiteboard for writing down a list of to dos, and a filing cabinet. That’s it. No posters, no speakers, no TV, no dogs, no phone, no friends, nothing. If I could, I would write without Internet. In fact, when I’m writing fiction, I do. I use an app called Freedom that effectively chokes off my Internet coverage for a period of time. I highly, highly, highly recommend it.

This is because writing, in terms of the amount of mental energy required, is one of the hardest things you can do. When you workout, you can get into a rhythm. When you listen to a lecture, you can always go back and listen to it again or follow the PowerPoint. Even reading is somewhat passive. If you’re solving math or science problems, generally speaking, there are clearly defined steps you have to take that allow for pauses in the work.

But writing is a creative act, and creativity, as fulfilling as it is, sucks so much of your brain power you can’t afford to waste any of it on even the smallest of distractions. From the time that you start to the time that you finish, you’ll rarely find a good “break point” to pause. Not only does writing take a lot of energy, it takes a lot of consistent energy. This is especially true given that studies say if your flow gets interrupted by a single distraction—email, friends, TV, you name it—it takes several minutes to get back into work. You may be able to solve a physics problem and pick up right where you left off, but it’s much harder with writing.

When you write, no pets, no TV, no music, and no friends should be allowed. I’d even go so far as to say no windows, but I violate that “rule” and some people feel more creative with a window anyways. But the point is the same—less isn’t more, it’s the most. You’ll find that you can concentrate more easily, you can produce higher quality work, and you can do so faster, freeing up more time to go do what you want.

So remember. Don’t fight distractions. Just don’t ever let them show up in the first place. Avoid distractions entirely.

The Exception (That Probably Won’t Apply to You)

There’s one subset of this that I have found success with, and that is music. But, it must be a very specific type of music. It must be lyric-less music, or songs you’ve heard so often that they’ll just blur in the background. If you find yourself singing along to the song, if you find yourself listening to the meaning of the lyrics, you’re distracting yourself.

Done right, music can get you into a good rhythm. However, I strongly advise you not to listen to music unless you’ve already formed the habit or have plenty of experience writing. If you have to wonder if you do, you don’t, not if your goal is to write your college application essay. I used to write to electronic music when I wrote fiction, but now, I almost never do. The only time I listen to music while writing is if I’ve hit such a block or I’m so tired that I have no choice but to try something radical. As I said, unless you have the habit, it’s better to not listen to music to help avoid distractions than to try experimenting with it.

Want to have a professional handle your essay writing? Let me help you get into your dream school.

Want to know everything about writing essays for your applications? Find out everything you need to know here.

Writing Tip #1: Brevity

Writing Tip #1: Brevity

In the spirit of brevity, I’m going to keep this under 500 words, no matter what.

If you’re not used to writing several hundred words about a topic, it can seem like you’ve written all of your essay after 350 words, only to groan when you realize you need to get it closer to 500. So you start stretching what you’ve written before. Instead of “I played point guard for my school’s varsity team the last three years,” you say “I held the position of starting point guard for my high school’s varsity team over the course of the last three seasons in which we won multiple games.”

A good writer knows the value of brevity. You may think that turning a 500-word piece into 340 words will make your life difficult, but it actually provides huge benefits. It gives you more room to provide more enriching content. You should always make your writing more concise; even fluff fiction keeps their words to a minimum as much as possible.

An Example in Brevity

“I began to believe that maybe if I could stay after practice to kick more field goals than normal, I might give my team a chance to win our next game.”

My first issue here is the use of the verb “begin.” Verbs like “begin,” “ought,” “realize,” “know,” and a couple others are fillers. A sentence like “I know that I can succeed” can almost always be condensed to “I can succeed.” So I’m cutting this down to “I believed that…”

Next, I dislike what I call “conditional phrases.” “Maybe,” “Perhaps,” “If I can,” weaken your writing and make you sound less confident. So this now gets cut down to “I believed that if I…”

“Could stay after practice to kick more field goals than normal” has a couple of words you can knock off. “Could” is not necessary, although you will sometimes need this word. You can cut “than normal.” So now we have “I believed that if I stayed after practice to kick more field goals…”

“I might give my team a chance to win our next game.” We’ve already discussed might, but here, “would” or “could” as a replacement makes the flow better. I actually would reword this to “I would improve my team’s success.” “Success” is a much briefer version of “a chance to win.” Finally, “improve” makes for a more active verb.

Finally, we have “I believed that if I stayed after practice to kick more field goals, I would improve my team’s success.” If we wanted to, we could cut this down even further, perhaps to something like “I knew extra practice kicking field goals would win us more games.”

If not, you still opened up 12 words. And that’s just from one sentence. What can you do with more words with just a few edits for brevity?

Want to have a professional handle your essay writing? Let me help you get into your dream school.

Want to know everything about writing essays for your applications? Find out everything you need to know here.