Last week, our friend Ethan Sawyer offered his advice for getting started on Stanford's notorious roommate essay, in which applicants are asked to write a letter to their future roommates. In today's post, he expands on his insights and offers tips for improving your essay if you've already written a first draft. Listen up, because his tips and tricks can help you with any of the personal essays you may have to write!
1. Count how many details in your essay reveal something deep and true about you. (I count 14 good details in the example essay in Part I of this post.)
But which details reveal something deep and true? And what does a “deep and true” detail sound like? You decide.
Take a look at these details:
- I don’t snore in my sleep.
- I spent last summer at West Point and Annapolis, where I was told I’d be admitted if I applied. I decided not to so I could spend more time with my family.
- I went to an L.A. Galaxy game with my friends two weeks ago.
- I competed in rodeos for three years.
- I love Justin Timberlake, NCIS, The Walking Dead, Avatar, and The Voice.
- I have always been the girl who does the most push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups, but that’s probably because I’m usually the tiniest girl and have the least weight to deal with.
Which would you keep? Which could be cut?
Ultimately it’s a matter of personal preference, but here are two tips:
- Notice when two or three details are communicating the same thing. Example: “Running relaxes me” and “I’m on the track team” aren’t clearly different. Cut one.
- Specificity usually wins. For example, “I have a wide collection of crystals, American coins predating the 1940s, and ammonite fossils in my closet” is better than “I collect things.”
And two personal preferences:
- Keep pop culture references to a minimum. One or two is OK. Five is, I think, too many. Mix it up with some old-school or classic stuff, like Jay-Z and Al Green, or Wreck-it Ralph and Fellini’s 8 ½.
- Maybe don’t use exclamation points more than three times. Unless you’re being ironic.
Now look back at your own essay. Which are the good (keeper) details and which are kind of weak? Cut the weak ones. So much about you is interesting and beautiful and different. Don’t settle for boring details in this essay. Or in any essay. Or in life.
2. Once you’ve identified your specific, unique details, decide if you want to include MORE details and LESS explanation, or the opposite.
Example of MORE details and LESS explanation:
In my room, a Korean ballad streams from American-made computer speakers, while a cold December wind wafts the smells of ramen and leftover pizza. On the wall in the far back, a Korean flag hangs besides a Led Zeppelin poster.
The author’s point is pretty clear, and though he doesn’t need to explain it, he does later:
. . . This mélange of cultures in my East-meets-West room embodies the diversity that characterizes my international student life.
Those details could stand on their own, though, and the “show” requires little “tell.”
Here's an example of FEWER details and MORE explanation:
I love playing piano. I play it when I volunteer at the hospital, in senior resident homes, and at my church. Every time, after I play at the designated location, both the elderly and the children smile contentedly, emanating a happiness that I have never seen elsewhere—a joy that everyone should be able to experience.
Which do you prefer? Again, it’s a matter of personal preference.
For my money, though, “show” is greater than “tell” for this kind of essay.
And most personal essays.
Looking for more essay advice? Be sure to check out The College Essay Guy's blog!