You’re constantly being told that your admission essay must STAND OUT, right? But what does that even mean? And isn’t “standing out” a ridiculously high standard for normal teenagers who haven’t been an astronaut or assisted with heart surgery after school?
Too much stress
The pressure to “stand out” from all other applicants is not only unrealistic, it can lead to stress for those of us who aren’t uber-humans. It can blind us to what is unique about us: our individual one-of-a-kind way of getting up every day and interacting with the world. And the pressure to stand out can cause us to make some essay blunders, which I’ll address in a minute.
So you don’t need to “stand out,” but you do need to “reach out.”
By “reach out,” I mean that your essay helps you makes an authentic human connection with the reader, in this case, an overworked admissions counselor. It doesn’t mean you speak directly to the reader, or try to be their best friend. It means that your essay allows the reader to see your personality, form a specific and positive mental image of you, and imagine how you might fit at that college. In other words, an effective essay lets the reader “get you.”
You can do this!
And the good news is that you, normal human high school student, can write an essay that reaches out and connects. Sure, you have to work at it a little bit, be willing to reflect and revise, and be open to feedback from counselors or teachers. But it’s much easier than trying to endow yourself with sainthood, genius, or artistic brilliance.
So how do you make a connection through writing? The same way you do in person: you show the other person that you are honest, relatable, and interesting. Of course in the essay, you have to do it all with words.
Here are three ways to reach out through your writing.
1. Be a human being. (And don’t put down your fellow humans.)
When applicants think they have to “stand out,” they sometimes try to show themselves as “different” (that is, better) than everyone else. And by doing so, they can come off as less than reliable and honest narrators of their own life. Either they are the lone “sensitive artist” at their school, or the teenage saint who spends her Saturday nights volunteering at the nursing home when all the other kids are out beating people up. When students elevate themselves over their peers in this way, they can risk being seen as naïve, or lacking the emotional intelligence that colleges really want. The human being that’s reading your essay probably is NOT thinking, “Wow, Emily is so amazing, but everyone else at Central High is a selfish, untalented, soulless loser. Emily is going to be the last person we accept from the that failure factory.” Rather, he or she thinks, “Geez, what’s wrong with Emily that she looks down on everyone else? She might be talented, but she is clueless about other people.”
When you want to use your essay to “reach out” to your reader, don’t put others down to make yourself look better. Unless you’re talking about your internship with ISIS, you probably want to find the goodness in the other people you write about.
2. Be your wonderful, imperfect self.
Just as we can’t make ourselves look good by dissing others, we also don’t connect if we take ourselves too seriously. Think of the people you admire – your friends, a teacher, an artist, maybe even a parent. Are they perfect? Probably not. Nobody can really engage with “perfect” people, or people who try to come off that way. Most of us like – and relate to - fellow humans who can admit shortcomings. College admissions counselors are no exception, especially since they are looking for people who can grow and change. So if you can share an example of a time you made a mistake and learned from it, you’re on your way to connecting with your reader and showing your character. Maybe you took the wrong class, had a bad relationship with a teacher, or made a dumb mistake at work. You might consider working it in, even in a small way. You don’t have to trumpet your failings, or fill the essay with your screw ups, but do consider showing a wart or two.
3.Be yourself – specifically.
If you want to connect with the admissions counselor reading your essay, you’ve got to paint a picture of yourself that the reader can see and hear. You can only do that with concrete language, not generalizations. You should avoid sentences like these: “I was recognized as a leader as a result of my hard work.” Or “I’ve always been a people person.” Why? Because they can be boring and they don’t say enough about the specific writer, unless there’s a concrete example attached. Anyone could make those statements – and many students do. Can you imagine the admissions counselors gathering after receiving hundreds of essays filled with empty generalizations? “Okay, I’ve got 70 hard workers, 35 people persons, and yep, everyone is a leader again this year.”
Ditch the abstractions and cliches if you really want to engage your reader and be interesting. Instead focus on giving your readers concrete images, sounds, even smells! Let them feel that they are there with you. Here’s a couple of tips: don’t let three sentences go by without some specific concrete details. And if you’ve got a generalization, try saying it out loud. Does it sound phony? Does it sound like BS? The take it out or make it more realistic.
So as you write, remember: you can do this! Show your own specific wonderful personality, share an imperfection, and show some love to your fellow humans. You don’t need to stand out, you just need to reach out.
I can’t guarantee that writing as essay that shows you to be honest, relatable, and interesting will definitely get you into every school you apply to. But I can promise it will help.
Readers: Am I right? Wrong? Do bosses want big words? Please share your experience!
“Sure, using regular everyday language is fine with my team, but with the partners, I have to use my ‘ten dollar words.’ You have to impress them.”
As a communications coach I hear statements like this all the time. “The ‘higher ups’ are smart; they expect complexity.” One consultant even claimed recently, “Some clients just want to read all that fluff. They think it justifies why they are paying us.”
We can’t help it – school made us that way!
I’m pretty skeptical about those generalizations, but I get it. I studied for the AP test. No teacher ever asked me for the “most concise” paper possible. In school, we’re basically paid by the word, preferably multisyllabic ones. By the time we graduate and go to work, we’re ready to unleash our well-stocked word-horde and augment it with our new job jargon.
But after years of working with professionals in every industry, I know that the VPs and partners of the world do not value big words or long sentences. Imagine a senior partner at a major firm reading a report and complaining, “This document is so ^*$$%%!!…readable. It’s clear, I get to the point right away, and it’s easy to respond to. I am definitely going to fire whoever wrote it.”
That’s about as likely as the CEO promoting someone for writing the longest sentences in the company.
People at every level want one thing as readers: clarity
From the mailroom to the boardroom, we all want to understand a message clearly and quickly. Just because you’re a senior leader doesn’t mean that you develop a taste for complexity in communication, or that you want the challenge of deciphering a jargon-filled proposal. In fact, at these higher levels, you probably have a more critical need for clear, direct language.
Research into “big word disease”
In 2005, Princeton Psych professor Daniel Oppenheimer conducted a fascinatingstudy to see what readers really thought about documents filled with long words. Oppenheimer’s study, humorously entitled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” found that readers rated the authors of the “needlessly complex” documents as less intelligent than those of documents with simpler writing. By the way, that work won an Ignoble Prize that year, which recognizes research ”that makes people laugh and then think.”
Oppenheimer tells us that the people most likely to “pad” writing with big words are college students and those new to the work force. He found that nearly 2/3 of the Stanford University students he studied admitted to using a thesaurus to find more complex words so that they could impress the professor with their intelligence.
As a business writing instructor at Boston University and in the nation’s largest corporations, I know he’s right. It’s the people who are the least secure as writers that make their writing unnecessarily complex. In fact, several people in my corporate writing workshops have confessed that they added big words to their documents to raise their grade level of the Flesch Kincaid score in Microsoft Word. They all wanted to look more “educated” with their bosses.
But none of this word bloat is necessary. Smart people, busy people, people with designer underwear, they all just want to get your point without working too hard to do it. Here’s a great tip for writing to them – and to everyone else: Just think of how you would explain something in spoken words to your reader, and try to stick as close to those natural words as possible. And try to avoid jargon too. Sure, sometimes you have to use technical terms and complex sentences, but mostly you don’t. If you avoid needless complexity, you’ll be a better writer, and the senior people at your company will be grateful.
And for inspiration, think of the great John F, Kennedyspeech in which he said “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
Notice how he doesn’t say, as Chip Heath and Dan Heath point out in their great book Made to Stick, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.” If he did say it that way, it’s unlikely there would have been "one small step for man... "
So step away from the thesaurus and know that your boss, and your boss’s boss, don’t need your big words, they just need the right words, which are usually simple and direct. So the next time you need to go all “Recontextualizing” and “operationalizing the forward initiative to gain agreeance,” just stop! Think of how you would say the same thing in “human.” And if you need a thesaurus, try a reverse thesaurus that finds you a smaller word version of your long word.
I think you’ll find it’s a paradigm shift, whatever the heck that is.
We all want to sound smart. And one shortcut, especially when we are office newbies, is using the same expressions our boss uses, or copying what we read in a manager’s email. Kind of like a verbal rent-a-suit, right?
But this shortcut works only if your boss avoids tired meaningless jargon. And many don’t. (They learned from their boss.) So lots of pompous “fluff” words get passed around the workplace word-pit until they become “The Official Language of Everyone Who Works Here.” But you know what else gets passed around an office? Norovirus, a.k.a., the stomach flu. And just like the flu, hackneyed verbal pathogens spread from the reception desk to the auditing department over to HR. The flu eventually leaves, but the fuzzwords never do, and you’re left to “circle back” or “reach out” until the next outbreak.
So today I’m going to try to inoculate you against one of those fuzzwords so that when you feel an infection coming on, you’ll be able to resist.
What not to say: “That being said,” (and all its cousins: “all that being said,” “that having been said,” “with that being said,” “having said that” etc.)
Why people say it: People generally use it to signal that what they are about to say is somewhat contradictory to what they just said.
“Now, this doesn’t mean that a new volcano might not form in Santiam/McKenzie Pass at some point in the future.
That being said, if there is any location in the continental United States that any real volcanophile should visit, it’s Santiam/McKenzie Pass area in Oregon.” From Wired Magazine http://tinyurl.com/huroxg3
Why you shouldn’t say it: First, it’s trendy, which means that using it can make you look like a poser who can’t think for yourself (see: “low hanging fruit”). Second, people sometimes confuse audiences by misusing it as “furthermore.”
“We want to give everyone a chance to give feedback for the session today. That being said, we’ll provide comment cards at your seat.”
Thirdly, it has a weird passive grammatical construction that makes it sound pompous and vague at the same time. And finally, It’s simply not needed.
What to say instead: It’s much simpler and more direct to signal a change in perspective with words like “However,” “Still,” or “Despite the …” Look at the following excerpts and see if they could be improved by one of these everyday words.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican who chairs the National Governor's Association, said gun safety was primarily a state issue. "We have different cultures and different politics," he said. "That being said, I certainly believe in background checks," Herbert said. "We want to make sure that the bad guys don’t have access to guns, but the good guys do." From USA Today http://tinyurl.com/ztgmzdy
“So while coffee may lead to a significant reduction of risk for liver damage, it won't necessarily treat any of the other negative side effects associated with heavy drinking. It's important to drink responsibly, regardless of how much coffee you consume.
That being said, there are plenty of reasons to continue your coffee habit, other than a potential reduced risk in developing cirrhosis.” From Bustle.com http://tinyurl.com/hf5wk3p
So help me out: Does “that being said” annoy you? Do you have other “fuzzwords” you think we should avoid? Please let me know. And don’t tell your boss.