The persuasive personal essay turns ethos, pathos, and logos into a song for our common humanity, by sparking recognition in the reader for another’s foibles, trials, and shared beliefs. And here you thought essays were just painful exercises.
If you happen to be in high school or know someone who is, essay writing help propel the writer into the ideal college. When George was in high school, he sought my essay-writing help. I agreed to advise him on two conditions: first, I would critique every draft but would not help him write it, and second, he should be prepared to write many, many drafts. I guaranteed him a painful summer, and so it was. But to this day he says the torture was worth it. He turned the experience into the best writing course he ever took. Here are the principles we started with, all of them thoroughly rhetorical.
What’s Your Hook?
While the top schools look for good writing, they’re more interested in character. Your College Board scores will tell them how smart you are, and your grades let them know you study hard. Admissions officers also look for a student who will add something to the campus. Ask them about the most recent crop of first-year students and you’ll see what I mean: “Our class includes a published novelist, an Olympic luger, and an artist who made a monumental sculpture out of gummi bears.” That’s what I mean by “hook.” It’s a characteristic that suits your audience’s belief in a well-rounded campus filled with singularly accomplished individuals.
Don’t stress out if you don’t really have a hook. George decided to write about a headache. (Yes, a headache.) But a great hook helps. My friend Alex has a second-degree black belt in judo. She was thinking about doing an essay on her beloved Calvin and Hobbes. Can you guess what my advice was? If you have a hook, write about the hook.
Don’t Express Yourself
A college essay is an act of persuasion. Your job is to talk the admissions office into accepting you. “I got really sick of reading about dead grandmothers,” one former officer told me. So the essay isn’t your opportunity to get feelings off your chest, or amuse yourself, or imitate your favorite writer. Your teachers have spent far too much time telling you to express yourself. To persuade someone, you should express your reader’s thoughts and desires, and show how you embody them. Think: if you were an admissions officer, what would you be looking for in, say, you?
Oh, and another thing: relieve their boredom. Admissions officers read thousands of essays every year. Yours doesn’t have to be the most creative; it just has to be a good read. And how do you write such a marvel? By telling a story.
A Winning Essay Tells a Story, and It’s All About Epiphany
It should have a main character—you, presumably—a setting, some sort of conflict, and suspense. And don’t forget the hero’s journey. Admissions people look for students who learn and grow, so your essay should show you learning and growing. Whether you write about your hook or your headache, don’t just brag or describe. Your essay should have a moment of revelation: What did you learn from your experience? How did it make you the thoughtful, sensitive, brave, strong person you are (or would like an admissions person to think you are) today? Show a process of learning and a moment of revelation.
Make Yourself Good and Miserable
George wrote more than thirty drafts, spending a summer writing whenever he wasn’t working at his job or hiking outdoors. It was one of the hardest things he had ever done, and it made him miserable. In other words, he felt just like a writer!
George wrote about how he developed chronic headache syndrome at the beginning of seventh grade, when the family moved from New Mexico to Connecticut and he started at an urban high school. The syndrome is triggered by a virus, and in a type-A person it creates a sort of negative feedback loop: the headache causes stress, which makes the headache worse. George’s mother and I took him from one doctor to another. All of them prescribed drugs that would have turned him into a zombie. Finally we found a psychiatrist, Dr. Kravitz, who was an expert in biofeedback techniques. Dr. Kravitz hooked George up to a machine that measured his brain waves. It had a monitor that showed an array of red bars. George’s job was to turn them green.
“How do I do that?” George asked.
“You have to learn to accept your limitations,” Dr. Kravitz said. “Be able to let go of your struggles. You have to try not to try.”
Being the goal-oriented type, George sits down at the machine and pushes his brain. “Uuuuggggh!” He’ll make those bars turn green. (Note how I switched to the present tense. That’s what George did. It makes the story seem more immediate. If you think you can handle this tricky tense, consider using it for your essay.)
As George stares at the red bars, he thinks about himself—about the forty merit badges he earned on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout, about his love of competitive Nordic skiing, how he climbed the forty-eight tallest peaks in New Hampshire before he turned ten, how his whole identity has to do with meeting goals. I’ll let him tell the rest:
I look up from the computer screen, and through my tears I see a picture on the wall. It’s painted with big, broad brushstrokes of soft green fields. An oak tree bends leafy branches over a shepherd’s old stone hut. A breeze strokes the stalks of grass.
Something draws me back to the computer. One bar has turned green.
How could I do that? I didn’t do anything. Nothing comes this easily. I spent two years in speech therapy just so people could understand me; I couldn’t tie my shoes until I was eight. How can that bar be green? The painting must be a key. I try to imagine putting myself under the tree. I see an awkward boy with thick, blond, cowlicked hair and hunched shoulders.
I look back at the screen. All the bars are red. Why me? What did I do to deserve this?
I think of Job, my dad’s favorite character from the Bible. God and all the angels, including Satan, meet in Heaven. God brags about Job, saying his servant was unreservedly faithful. “That’s because you’re kind to him,” Satan says. “Try being mean to him and he’ll curse your name.” So God challenges Job’s faith by giving Job boils all over his body, killing his family, and taking all his worldly goods. At first Job complains loudly, but in the end he accepts his fate. “I know that you can do all things.” God immediately puts everything back to rights, restoring possessions, family, and clear skin.
What if I acted like Job? Would my life come back? Maybe this is what trying not to try is like. Instead of putting myself in the field, what if I simply let the field be the field?
One bar goes green.
Okay, one bar is green. I’m starting to get what the doctor is saying, but I don’t really like it. Will this be one of life’s limitations, spending the rest of my life trying not to try? Will I have to change who I am?
The world has expanded for me and I am no longer the center. Sure: I can’t change everything. And there is the crux of the whole thing: I’ll always be hardheaded and stubborn. Still, as I look at the painting it comforts me. It’s perfect and peaceful without me. It’s beautiful all on its own. I don’t have to do anything. Accepting things that are beyond me, being comforted by something that exists regardless of what I do: is this what faith is?
All the bars turn green.
That essay has all the elements of a story: a character, a conflict (type-A kid struggling against his type-A-ness in type-A fashion), suspense (will he make his headache go away?), and an epiphany (his discovery of the nature of faith). He revealed a thoughtful person capable of growth. He revealed flaws. And he told the story with grace and humor, conveying just the kind of intelligent, maturing soul admissions officers love. (Hey, cut me some slack. I’m his dad.)
George’s essay helped get him into his highly selective first-choice school, Middlebury College. His work was among ten out of a class of 850 read in front of the campus at Convocation. “The one they read before mine was by a Palestinian who wrote about shielding his little brother as an Israeli bomb hit their house,” George told me later. “ ‘Oh, great,’ I thought. ‘Now they’re going to read about my headache.’ ”
I couldn’t have been prouder. Now just think what you can do with your own struggles.