Step 1: Five Ways to Create an Environment Conducive to Great Writing
One of the most common and easily avoidable mistakes when it comes to essay writing is one’s setting — applicants too often elect to write in the wrong place or at a bad time. What makes an environment inappropriate for writing? It could be many things, but it almost always centers around a negative impact on the author’s ability to focus. Working on an essay while riding the train to work, outlining your paragraphs in the student lounge, keeping one eye on your email inbox, slumped on the couch late at night in a dimly lit room… all are very realistic scenarios in which you might find yourself composing an essay. And all, unfortunately, conspire to make your essays unfocused and ineffective.
Considering the number of admissions essays you will write and the busy lives that most graduate school applicants lead, it is not surprising to see people cramming in writing whenever they get a break in the action. As a result, you must be willing to make the commitment to your writing. If you want to write like a pro, you have to approach the task like a professional.
To create the proper writing environment, take these five important steps:
- Block out time in your schedule to work on your essays. Ensure that the block of time is long enough to get significant work done, factoring in time to brainstorm as well as compose. “Writer’s block” is bound to occur and you want to be able to push through any slumps before your session concludes. Additionally, adherence to a schedule is mandatory.
- Find a proper work space and use it every time you write. An easy way to create an environment conducive to focus is to sit at a desk with proper lighting and a comfortable chair. Try not to let your office or cubicle at work double as your essay writing work space; however, so long as you can disengage from the work day, writing in your office is often better than writing on the train, on the couch with your laptop propped up on your knees or amongst noisy roommates.
- Turn off your internet connection. Nothing is more distracting than the looming temptation to check email, Defamer or whatever your Internet preference might be. For the duration of your essay writing session, turn off your phone, turn off your wireless connection and concentrate on the task at hand.
- Make sure the audio environment suits you. Some people enjoy listening to music while others are distracted by it, or perhaps you need earplugs to drown out the sound of the TV from the other room. Discover what makes you comfortable and allows you to concentrate, and consider looking into the many available relaxation and concentration tools that are available in audio form. It’s all about getting comfortable, settled in, and focused.
- Eliminate mental clutter. There is nothing more difficult than writing while daydreaming or dwelling on problems. Your best writing will come when you are able to focus all of your attention to the task at hand—composition. Obviously, achieving total focus is easier said than done, but it can still be achieved if you eliminate tasks from your to-do list beforehand and vow never to write when you are upset or fresh off of dealing with a complicated issue.
Do these five things, and you’ll be well on your away to laying the groundwork for an excellent admissions essay. In the next installment, we will discuss how practice makes perfect when it comes to essay writing.
Step 2: Three Reasons to Practice Great Essay Writing
It may sound strange to practice essay writing in the midst of an application process, but practice is the single most effective strategy to master this art form. While the old adage “practice makes perfect” may not be entirely true, there is no doubt that practice does breed comfort in word counts, themes, and structure, which is paramount to position yourself to get the most out of the process.
Your finished product will always be relative to your starting point. Think of the improvement you will make in this process as a guaranteed amount, limited only by your starting point. Put into simple terms, our experts and our methods will improve your essays by two letter grades. If you are starting with “C,” we can take you to an “A” quality essay. However, if your essays are “D” quality to begin with, your likely finish line will be a “B” essay.
So what should you do? Try your very best to start with at least a “C,” of course! The goal of creating an adequate and satisfactory starting point is the reason for this entire guide, but it is also the most compelling reason to practice writing. Before you ever send your first draft of an essay to a consultant, you should spend time examining great sample essays and practice, practice, practice.
So, what can practice do for you? Three ways you should start to see immediate improvement include:
- Improved efficiency. There is no worse feeling than sitting down to write a 400-word essay, pouring your heart into a first draft, and subsequently realizing that you are over by 150 words. Practicing staying within the confines of various word counts will help you see the value in economical writing and enable you to consider ways of condensing your work so as to get more affirmative statements out of fewer words.
- Better clarity. The more times you grapple with common essay questions and themes, the more clarity you will have when you sit down to craft responses on your actual applications. Answering the same question in multiple ways or addressing the same themes embedded in different answers is a great way to really hone in on your reasons for pursuing admission to graduate school. Getting comfortable with your motivation allows you to interject those answers into your application without resorting to contrived or forced answers.
- More comfort with using the first-person narrative style. One of the most consistent problems we see with candidates’ essays is that they are not crafted as a bold and clear portrayal of the individual in question. In almost every instance, this issue stems from a discomfort with writing from a first-person, or “I” perspective. From the time we are old enough to write in complete sentences, our teachers have encouraged us to avoid using the word “I” when we write. However, the personal statement is the one time when using the word “I” is completely necessary. After all, it is your story!
Step 3: Be As Specific As Possible!
While most applicants will readily agree that specifics are necessary when writing one’s admissions essays, the vast majority of the writing samples we see are still filled with vague proclamations. Part of the reason for this disconnect is that there is some level of confusion as to what specificity means. It does not mean that you merely provide examples — it means eliminating the diluted, vague statements in favor of detailed explanations.
While that often means providing examples, sometimes being specific is as simple as expanding on an idea. Consider the following sentence, which is typical essay fare:
Upon conclusion of the deal, I had the opportunity to hear a diversity of opinions and enjoy the company of a variety of different types of people, from unique backgrounds.
The example sentence is the opposite of specific as it reads as vague, “Inspiration 101″ content. Snooze.
Consider a more specific alternative:
Upon conclusion of the deal, I dined with a most unusual dinner party and bore witness to the sight of a died-in-the-wool Republican and a bleeding heart Democrat arguing their political views and opinions to a Korean businessman armed with just two days of American culture under his belt.
Yes, the second sentence burns up more precious words and while managing your word count is important, you never want to sacrifice specificity just to trim space. Lending a rich and powerful voice to trite sentiments is the surest way to keep your essay from being passed over and dismissed as standard fare.
So, how do you inject specificity into your writing? Start by searching for anything that feels clichéd or “too easy.” Look for buzz words that have lost their impact due to overuse and swap in the exact idea you are trying to convey. Most of all, examine your conclusions to ensure that they actually say something. If you examine the first example above, you can see that buzz words like diversity, variety, unique, andbackgrounds populate the sentence, rendering it nothing more than a cliché. By articulating the message with specific details, the sentence is transformed into an easily visualized portrait of a memorable evening.
Step 4: Diversity Is a Virtue
When handing out advice on essay writing, many experts encourage applicants to use short sentences. Others demand essays to be rich in detail, which require a longer sentence. So which is the most effective approach?
The answer, of course, is both. The mark of strong writing –- of interesting writing –- is stylistic diversity, blending short and long, simple and complex sentences. Words have power and the way we string them together can call attention to the most important themes or points.
Here are four ways you can “mix up” your writing to keep things interesting for application readers:
- Keep it simple. The anchors of any essay, short, simple sentences are the surest bet when conveying an important message in a small space. Simple sentences keep the reader interested and afford your work clarity, as you reduce the risk that a thought will go on too long and run out of steam. Perhaps most importantly, using a shorter sentence lowers the odds of committing a mistake likely to occur in a more complex sentence. It also goes without saying that simple sentences are the friend of any author battling a constrictive word count.
- But not too simple. Linking two simple sentences together is a great way to diversify your style, but compound sentences can also bridge ideas and lead into a powerful conclusion. These sentences are also useful to mitigate a weakness allowing that the final thought expressed by the sentence is the solution or takeaway rather than the weakness itself. Remember that compound sentences always feature a coordinating word such as and, but, nor, for, so or yet.
- Get complex where appropriate. We hesitate to say “use long sentences” here, because there is no value in drafting a sentence that is long just for the sake of being long. However, there are times when you should use complex sentences that articulate multiple ideas. A well-crafted and artful complex sentence is suggestive of strong writing ability, which is one of the traits being evaluated in your application essays. Remember that a complex sentence is not merely the joining of two simple sentences (that is a compound sentence), but rather the joining of an independent clause and a dependent clause. Look for subordinating words such as since, after, although, or when.
- Know how to express a series. One of the most common questions with regard to writing style is how to make the words in a series stand out to the reader. Again, diversity is ideal, but be careful not to go too far. Applicants see the power of simple sentences and go overboard in listing out a series of thoughts as individual sentences. Listing a series of ideas as separate sentences is a device that has become increasingly common and effective in fiction writing, but is dangerous ground in a professional document.
Regarding #4, here is an example of what not to do:
My goal is to graduate from a top program with the necessary tools for success. Business acumen. Management experience. Vision.
Play it safe and express this notion in a more conventional way:
My goal is to graduate from a top program with the necessary tools for success, which include business acumen, management experience, and vision.
Whatever you do, never decide to list the serial items as individual paragraphs. While some applicants like the look of this on paper, and feel that it lends a certain weightiness to their writing, this tactic almost always proves to be ineffective with essay readers.
Step 5: Sprinkle in Some Synonyms
Variety is the spice of life, even when it comes to writing admissions essays. The easiest way to raise the linguistic bar is through word choice; finding appropriate synonyms to stand in for tired words is one of the most effective things you can do to improve your writing. The trick is in finding descriptive words while avoiding esoteric or “showy” language.
Consider these three strategies:
- Use your revisions as a chance to spice things up. You’ve probably been warned against using fancy words in your writing and that is a worthwhile piece of advice. That said, it doesn’t require that you be bland. The best way to avoid using forced language and ridiculous words is to express your thoughts in the most straightforward way possible on the first pass. Then — and only then — should you go back through the composition with your handy thesaurus and find more reader-friendly and natural replacements. Thanks to Microsoft Word, you don’t need an actual thesaurus—simply highlight the word and right click to find the “synonyms” option.
- Don’t be a slave to your thesaurus. If you can’t pronounce a word, or you don’t know exactly what it means, don’t use it. Just because a word is synonymous with another word does not ensure that they mean exactly the same thing within the context of your idea. Any time your word choice starts to negatively impact what you’re trying to do, you need to back off and play it a bit safer. Not every sentence needs to show off your prodigious vocabulary.
- Connect with your inner German. The Germans know how to build great cars, and they also know how to make high-impact words. The majority of words in the English language derive from either Romance languages rooted in Latin, or Germanic languages. Romance words are typically more elegant, while Germanic words are more forceful and in most instances, there is a counterpart for each word. Depending on the situation, one is more appropriate than the other. In the case of persuasive writing steeped in results, forceful, Germanic words are often preferable.
Putting these there easy strategies to use can make your essays more interesting to read and — most importantly — more effective. Avoid the temptation to show off your temptation skills, and you will be well on your way to creating winning admissions essays.
Step 6: Lose the Passive Voice
This installment is short but sweet — and extremely important for making your essay writing more effective. Writing in a passive voice is a sure way to lull MBA admissions officers to sleep and doom your own business school candidacy.
How can you ensure that you have stripped out your passivity? Look for the following verbs: is, where, was, could have, and would have. This will clue you into instances in which the object of the sentence is “doing” the verb, which creates the passive voice. Once you’ve identified these sentences, alter the verbiage such that that the subject of the sentence is the one “doing” the verb in question.
Note the following:
- Passive: The personal statement was drafted by the applicant.
- Active: The applicant drafted the personal statement.
Note the subject and object of the sentence. Again, the subject must be the one performing the verb in question (”draft,” in the example sentence). It is more difficult in English than in other languages to dissect subjects and objects because the words remain the same whether they are subjective or objective (exceptions include who/whom and I/me), but this is the occasion to spend more time getting assistance and getting it right.