Americans eat something like a billion pounds of peanut butter per year–and most students feel, at their most eye-roll-y moments, like they write about a billion college essays (all those supplements!). If you want to develop a good essay, however, we could learn a thing or two from our popular staple peanut butter.
The Peanut Butter /Writing Process
My older stepson, K, is a bit obsessed with pb&j. Turns out it’s also the #1 choice of pre-game meals for the NBA (though they could afford caviar!), and most non-allergic elementary school kids (who scoff at caviar!). As soon as K walks in the kitchen, the possibility of pb hijacks his decision-making process. He pulls out the bread, the oversized jars of pb and local honey, and gets to work. His heart throbs.
The thing is, it’s torture watching him make it. Because he takes so very long, spreading that peanut butter. He runs the flat edge of the butter knife over and over the bread until there are zero lumps. The pb is exactly smooth. And 10 minutes have passed, maybe more. He devours it in three bites. Develop, delete; create, destroy; produce, consume; repeat.
Why this makes me want to lose my mind is a good question– it’s not my time or my sandwich.
Your college essay is not mine either. And I don’t lose my mind over it, nor should you (except in the healthy way that sometimes we need to lose ourselves to find ourselves). However, I think we could consider K’s approach to peanut butter spreading as one of the perfect metaphors for a common problem– the essay that a writer did not develop evenly sometimes misses the mark. So what do you need to consider to develop a strong essay? Not a flimsy, disappointing sandwich?
How to develop your college essay (quick & dirty):
- don’t over-expend on the intro
- include enough backstory
- vivify with scenes
- make some meaning
- have realistic aspirations
- connections should be fresh
- in conclusion, DON’T SAY IN CONCLUSION!–but give me a gift!
Put it into practice!
As you read through the following descriptions, cross check your draft. Act on your a-ha moments, even if you really want a sandwich instead.
I often see students who are eager to “hook” the reader (I don’t love that verb though) spend a ton of time on the intro, overworking it until it’s pitch perfect. That’s fine (though sometimes it’s starchy) and it’s definitely important not to bore or aggravate the reader in the first few sentences. Because– they just stopped reading.
However, often, after the intro, the writer becomes too laissez-faire. They know they have the reader’s attention, and they are exhausted from over-tuning the first few sentences. Go back to your intro. Ask yourself if you sweat harder on it than any other part. Can you bring some of that hook energy to the forgotten middle paragraphs?
There is too little backstory. I have no idea the context for the story you’re telling. I have no idea of where this essay fits in the scope of your life story. Look at your backstory– did you skip anything crucial? Did you make too many assumptions?
There is too little scene– I never get pulled into the present with you, roped in to something vivid. Don’t just tell me, for example, that you had PB&J for lunch every day for five years; LET ME SMELL IT IN ITS PLASTIC BAGGIE. LET ME SEE THE OTHER KIDS TURNING AWAY IN BOREDOM FROM YOUR LUNCH BOX.
I don’t know what all this means to you– you parachute out of your essay without doing the hard work of reflection. I never get some version of NOW I REALIZE THAT STICKING TO MY HABITS MADE ME FEEL SAFE. THE WORLD WAS BIG AND BAD BUT MY LUNCH BOX REPRESENTED THE KNOWN.
You have no idea what a college essay conclusion should do except include some hokey statement about YOUR FUTURE CAREER and HELPING THE WORLD be better so you just say that and cross your fingers. I WILL USE MY SKILL OF BEING STUDIOUS IN MY FUTURE HIGH PAYING CAREER AS A PBJ RESEARCHER. No, please. Pass the jalapeno.
You forget that one of the best things you can do is make an unusual connection, and you go for a safe, predictable connection instead– for example, doing community service (usually for, like, a day) helped you see that YOU HAVE SO MUCH PEANUT BUTTER WHILE OTHERS HAVE NONE. YOU WILL BE ETERNALLY GRATEFUL FOR YOURS. (What do any of us know of eternity?)
All of these are missed opportunities.
I watch the care, attention, and even love my stepson puts into that sandwich. When he eats it, however quickly, there will be no place that lacks the just-right amount of peanut butter. The sandwich will satisfy equally, if briefly (what do any of us know of eternity).
So, please, take a minute in your review of your essay and ask yourself if you have truly spread the peanut butter evenly. Do you need to develop any part more fully?
Did you add the honey?
After all the peanut butter, I still don’t know how to develop my essay
I know, I know, metaphors are only so helpful! We give fast feedback and peanut butter knife-technique coaching. Even better, like peanut butter, we try to make ourselves available to anyone who wants to develop an exceptional college essay, regardless of ability to pay in full. Contact us to discuss. Abolish the lumpy, uneven essay and replace it with your best work.
Then let the NBA know you’ll be joining them for lunch.