If you're a 17- or 18-year-old applying to college this year, the terrorist attacks of September 11 are likely a crucial milestone in your personal history. They happened at a formative time in your youth, and they're probably something you've thought about a lot. You might be tempted to write an application essay about them. And that's okay. But if you do, your essay will have to be amazing. It will have to be a total knockout. Why? Because half of the other applicants are writing September 11 essays, too.
Today's correspondent has the potential to become an amazing, total knockout of an essay:
After September 11, 2001 I became extremely intimated upon stepping a foot out of my house. Thoughts concerning my future had invaded my brain. I began to wonder if, like the Japanese during the Vietnam War, would my religious beliefs lead me to a “detention camp” too? Would I ever get a good job, or would I be discriminated? Would my dear American friends hate me? These were my tops concerns after September 11, 2001. My heart began to sink as I witnessed strangers eyeing me with hatred in their eyes. Nevertheless my friends, who always admired my personality, began to isolate themselves from me. I remember in my fifth grade class my best friend Jane Andrew departing away from me as she cried over her uncle’s died body, who was a victim of 9/11. That night my pillow got wet as tears sprinted down my eyes while I wondered what had I done wrong, why was I being punished and isolated from my loved ones.
This writer has an important and upsetting story to tell. She faced real discrimination after September 11. But the opening of her essay goes slightly awry. We can all learn three crucial lessons from it:
1. Open with a compelling anecdote.
Check out this sentence: "I remember in my fifth grade class my best friend Jane Andrew departing away from me as she cried over her uncle’s died body, who was a victim of 9/11." This is the PERFECT story with which to begin this essay. It's a little microcosm of the writer's point: because of September 11, her friends turned away from her. The story touches on racism, it conveys the anger of the bereaved, and it presents a visually striking, almost cinematic, image. The writer should start her essay here, and slow down. She should take her time with the scene: "My best friend, Jane Andrew, was crying over her uncle's dead body. I stood next to her, wondering whether to pat her shoulder or offer her a Kleenex. Then she looked up at me." And so on.
2. Don't use a fancy word in place of a simple one.
It's almost eerie: if you use a word you don't quite understand, your readers will know. "[T]ears sprinted down my eyes"—tears don't sprint. I didn't make that rule; it just exists. (And tears couldn't sprint down your eyes, anyway. Down your cheeks, maybe, but not down your eyes.) Never turn to your thesaurus. Write plainly and simply.
3. Watch out for echoes!
I wish I could post every day about how important it is to avoid echoes (using the same word, or a similar word, more than once per page). For example: "My heart began to sink as I witnessed strangers eyeing me with hatred in their eyes." See how eyeing/eyes clangs against your ear? Read your work aloud to catch stuff like this. You'll hear your mistakes more easily than you'll see them.
This writer has some problems with idioms and grammar, so she should ask a teacher to read over her application essay before she submits it. But she also has a fascinating point of view and a good story to tell, and that's more than half the battle.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.