Ever read something so convoluted that you can’t even get the gist of what the writer is trying to say– never mind the point of their words?
The destination for a personal essay like that in the hands of an admissions team is… the recycle bin or garbage– whichever is closer.
I see this a lot in college essays, where students are so convinced their admissions audience needs them to sound a certain way– over-educated, with a bloated vocabulary and complex syntax– that they don’t think about how their audience actually prefers them to be: natural, relaxed, and forthright.
A telltale (but not the only) sign that you are reading or writing a convoluted, pretentious (yep!) essay is when a deluge of SAT words adroitly manifests in the plethora of language the text pitches aberrantly at the reader’s perusal. If you know what I mean.
No, forget that. We all know that writing is always “prepared” speech. It is not simply spontaneous expression, as the squeals of someone opening the front door to win a Publishers Clearing House check the size of Clifford the Dog (does that actually happen to anyone?). But still, there is a range worth respecting: I can write more or less like I speak, when I am actually paying attention to my words and thoughts. OR I can write like a rambling drunk person (that’s not the kind of natural we mean, either). OR I can write so that even I find the text indecipherable. That last option does not make me sound smarter, nor like the kind of person you’d want to hang out with.
There is a simple solution to overwriting your college essay that works wonders. Ask yourself (or your student), “What are you really saying?” If you don’t know, then neither does your reader, nor will the reader ever. It is not the reader’s job to untangle the writer’s messes meant to impress. But if you know, and can say earnestly, “I’m trying to talk about how bad it felt to fail the declamation contest when I was assumed to be champion,” the just write that down and start again. But with the intention to truly say what you mean.
This, like almost every aspect of the personal essay, has a corollary in real life.
People rarely say what they mean, because what we really mean is often inappropriate to the context in which we find ourselves: Can I say to my boss after she sits in on a class, “I REALLY don’t like it when you stare down the students”? No, I have to say, “Did you find anything worth discussing in your observation of my students? It was great to have an outside eye in here.” This is the game we are all playing, and you signed up for it the day you developed language.
But it doesn’t HAVE to be like that, and certainly not when stakes are high, when our dreams may be on the line; when a writer (of a college essay) dares to speak the truth, it can be– and is– startlingly refreshing. People sit up and pay attention; the air gets charged.
And too often, we speak loosely, casually, not really meaning our words. We feel we can take back our words like you can take back a busted appliance, warranty forever attached. But we can’t, and what we say matters.
So leave your SAT words at the test site and get real with yourself and your thoughts and feelings, all of which have actual value. What do you really mean? And do you mean it? We’ll help you say that and only that, one-on-one or in community (check back for our fall offerings).