Aman MajmudarUniversity of Chicago 2024
Compelling college application essays require many revisions and a lot of rewriting. There’s no escaping this process: the best writers seldom have something publishable on their first draft. The key to their greatness is in knowing how to improve that draft to world-class standards. When creating your essays, here are some writing principles you might want to consider:
Clarity, Concision, and Simplicity Above All
An essay with just these three qualities will stand out. Why? Because we, as students, have been writing for readers—our teachers—who have demanded a fixed structure, minimum word count, and style according to their taste. But these requirements have made us form bad habits: using three words where one would do; using big transition words (nevertheless, nonetheless, notwithstanding) to start the sentence when the best writers stick to “but,” “and,” and “yet”; and preferring bigger and more impressive-sounding words, like “utilize,” over more readable words like “use.” These habits make the reader do more work than necessary. And they may read 650 words while only 300 of them represent actual thoughts and ideas.
To make your writing clearer, write with verbs instead of nouns. Here’s an example of writing with nouns: “The utilization of social media gives a contribution to the increased cognizance of social movements.” Notice how the sentence has its verbs (contribute; utilize) turned into nouns (contribution; utilization). So, the sentence lacks an entity doing an action. When we cannot visualize the writing, it becomes far harder to read. Here’s the same sentence in more readable language: “Social media lets more people know about social movements.”
This sentence is more readable because it includes a real subject, social media, doing something (lets) to someone (people). In the initial sentence, our subject was “the utilization of social media,” which is too abstract, and the verb is “gives,” which does not act on an entity but on another abstract noun (contribution).
The initial sentence also has many empty prepositional words, like “of.” These are words without thoughts. Yet this writing style is common not only among students but also academics. So, if you change your style to focus on readability rather than impressing others, you will stand out. It is more impressive to explain a complex concept in simple language.
Concise writing is good writing, according to researchers at the Universidad Francisco Marroquín. They compared Nobel Prize acceptance speeches and found that literature laureates, of all other categories such as Economics and Chemistry, used shorter words and words with fewer syllables.
And writing concisely is a habit. You need to train yourself to write in the fewest and shortest words possible, without sacrificing accuracy. Cut words wherever you can—by finding the action in the sentence (We took a look -> We looked; They show a difference -> They differ) or turning negatives into positives (do not allow -> restrict; could not be found -> was missing)—because concise writing expresses your thoughts more efficiently to the reader.
So, delete the “down” in sit down because you can’t sit any other way. Replace “a number of” with “many”; “were not able to” with “could not”; “make any difference regarding” with “change.” You can find more of such examples through Google; some websites have lists of common phrases that can be condensed into one word.
Simplicity is more an attitude than a writing technique. The key principle to simplicity? Forgo your need to sound smart. Strive not just to be read but to be understood. Avoid big words when small ones will do.
And respect your reader’s time: since admissions officers only have a few minutes per application, don’t make them waste time figuring out what you’re saying. When the reader must work to read your essay, it means you, the writer, haven’t done the work to improve the writing.