How I begin: I sit down. I drink coffee, lots of coffee. I smoke cigarettes, lots of cigarettes. Back when I could still drink, I would drink vodka, lots of vodka — this on top of the coffee, to create a nicely psychotically buzzed yet insanely focused kind of vibe; drugs might be good for achieving this too, but I’ve never really done drugs. I do all of this for a while, and eventually, I start to write.
What I’m doing at first — when I sit down and stare blankly at the screen, with the coffee, and the cigarettes — is called “procrastinating,” and procrastinating, it seems to me, is based on fear.
99% of my time is spent procrastinating as compared to 1% of actual writing: a terrible ratio. We procrastinate because we’re afraid of doing something badly, or because we’re trying to avoid something onerous. Of course I’m trying to defend my own procrastination here, but it seems to me that if you’re not a little afraid when you sit down to write something, then you’re doing something wrong.
I start to write because I’ve got a sentence stuck in my head. The rest of the essay is just an excuse to get to that sentence. Usually it’s either the first sentence or the last sentence… “I sit down” is not a great first sentence, but it was the sentence that got stuck in my head for this essay; it’s not clever, funny, or dramatic, but it at least has the advantage of being very, very simple.
Anyway, that’s how writing works, for me at least. Getting things stuck in my head and then trying to get them out of my head, the way that you try to get an annoying song out of your head.
Someday I will have to write a novel, because I have a wickedly awesome last sentence and last paragraph for a novel. The rest of the writing will be me trying to get to that one paragraph. For a long time, I had this phrase stuck in my head: “There is a world beyond this world; beneath this world, above it.” I wrote many, many essays, including this one, where I thought that I was going to use that phrase, but then didn’t end up using that phrase. As a result, I will still have to write something that uses it.
I don’t write an essay because I think that lots of people will click on it, or because it will give me lots of “hits,” or because it will give me lots of Facebook shares. Most of the bad writing that I see is based on writing in this way. I’m not saying that I’m better, it just never occurs to me to write in this way, and I probably couldn’t do it if I tried.
The novelist John Barth was once a professor at a college in upstate New York. It was the 1960s. The student movement was in full swing at his college: riots, student protests, strikes, hippies fighting with cops, the college being shut down. A reporter asked John Barth what he thought of the protests. He said they were “important but not interesting,” which is how I feel about most things. And then John Barth went back to working on whatever novel he was working on. And looked at from the right point of view — which is of course my point of view — John Barth was right. Student protests are either going to end with the students being successful (5% chance), or the students not being successful (95%), and either way — how interesting is that? Not very interesting, because they’re both predictable.
The goal of writing is to avoid predictable things.
I think the point that Barth was trying to make is that Big Things are often too large and slippery and preordained, and thus not as interesting as the small human things that he tried to write about. Or at least, if that’s not his point, that’s my point.
In-between that last sentence and this one, I have: drunk one non-alcoholic beer, drunk a little coffee, smoked one cigarette (although I wanted to smoke about twenty; somehow, mystifyingly, I can even procrastinate about smoking), found the above video, and wasted about an hour looking for the right picture to go at the top of this essay. Just thought that you would like to know.
A professor once told me never to ask questions like “Why write?” in my writing. He said that it would be like if characters in a movie suddenly stared out at the viewer and said, “Hey, why are we even in this movie, anyway?” In other words, it would be shocking for a second, then annoying. You don’t pay your money to have to deal with questions like that.
Well, here’s a dumb story — which is probably where this essay will go off the rails. The other day, I was writing about an awful song that I heard at the mall. I heard the song and instantly loved it, while my girlfriend instantly hated it. It is a terrible song — but then, I have terrible taste in music. I always hope that my awesome taste in books and in movies balances out my awful taste in music, but that’s probably not the case.
In the song, the singer sings this: “All my life, I’ve been good/ but now, I’m thinking — what the hell.” This is bad writing — though keep in mind that I love the song and will probably listen to it five more times today.
As it happens, I know about the singer. She recently got divorced, and the song is about her enjoying her time as a divorced person and about her f-cking other dudes. This is what the song is about, and we’re meant to delight in the hypothetical liberating “girl power-ness” of her skankiness. Okay, whatever. The problem is that she’s such a terrible writer — such a terrible lyricist — that she can only sing in cliches.
“All my life, I’ve been good.” Has she? Who among is us truly “good”? It’s a question for Aristotle or some other philosopher. But she doesn’t sound like such a great person, from the song. And she sings:
All I want is to mess around
And I don’t really care about
If you love me, if you hate me–
You can’t save me, baby, baby.
I don’t even know what this means, but it’s just a string of cliches. A cavalcade of cliches. She’s singing about how she’s a good person, but the song is about her acting like a bad person, but she’s saying that she doesn’t really care, but she sort of seems to care, and what’s happening is that her cliches are actually blocking her from thinking. Is what she’s doing — f-cking random guys — is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a tough question, it’s a question that I couldn’t necessarily answer, but it’s a question that she doesn’t even consider. Because if you can only think in cliches, then you’re just thinking in very well-worn grooves. You know how, if you get your car stuck in the mud or the snow, and you start spinning your wheels to get out, you just dig yourself in deeper and deeper? That’s what thinking in cliches is like.
And that’s why writing is important. Because good writing breaks free from cliches. As you’re writing, you’re learning. You’re forcing yourself to think independently of things that have come before.
So I was writing about that song, and thinking about that singer saying that she was “good,” and also I was thinking about sitting in bars, listening to crappy songs, which I do a lot of, even though I don’t drink anymore, and then I started thinking about the famous poem by W.H. Auden. Specifically the part that goes like this:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
This is, of course, dark, though “dark” is an insufficient and lame summation of what the poem is actually saying. But let’s just call it “dark” as shorthand. And it’s okay that it’s “dark.” Because it’s the job of good writing to take you to dark places, to places where you don’t necessarily want to go. …The job of good writing is to say what hasn’t been said before.
And if we apply the Auden poem to the song by Avril Lavigne — thereby marking the first time that anyone has ever compared those two people — then we see the problem with the song by Avril Lavigne. She’s using cliches, commonplaces, oft-repeated things, to cling to her average day. But by doing this, she’s not seeing where she really is: she’s using hackneyed language to hide from herself; to hide the fact that she’s a divorced woman who’s feeling lonely and unsure about what she’s doing with her life. If you can be honest with your language, then you can be honest in your life, and that’s also why writing is important.
My favorite writer ever declared that he was “at war against cliche.” And so, let us have a war on cliche, which does nothing but block us from real thought. The point of bad writing is to keep you from having to think about anything new. To keep you from having to change, which I totally understand; I hate change as much as the next guy. And hey, I love that Avril Lavigne song as much as the next guy, or girl. But I’m not really thinking when I’m listening to it.
Cliches are conventions, and all the conventions conspire to make this fort assume the furniture of home. Lest we should see where we are. Lost in a haunted wood. Children afraid of the night. Who have never been happy or good. …Or maybe that’s not where we are — maybe we’re in a place that’s not that bad, but we are somewhere, and to learn where we are, we have to be precise. Avoid slippery language. Be exact. Try to figure out exactly where you are and where we are.
Sometimes. this all feels hopeless; sometimes I feel hopeless. Hopeless in the face of overwhelming dumbness and apathy. Why be honest, why try to write well, why try to produce anything in the face of cliche, in the face of all these dumb people? Dumbness rules and always has and always will, and so why work so hard trying to produce something original, when most people don’t even care to begin with?
But it’s not all hopeless and Auden even says so. Though it all may seem hopeless and interminable, an endless struggle that will never be won, there is hope. The poet says so. I’ll just close with the end of the poem, and then we’ll say goodbye, with no clever ending from me. I think it’s better that way. …And so there is hope. Hopefully there is hope. And hopefully that hope lies within the freedom that art creates:
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages;
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
image – Shutterstock
After pouring their heart and soul into the Common App essay, students often run out of gas by the time they encounter any remaining supplemental essays. While supplemental essays may ask you anything from “What makes you happy?” (Tufts) to analyzing a Kermit the Frog quote (Dartmouth…seriously), the most important question in this section will, in some form, ask you to explain why this school is the perfect postsecondary home for you. Quite often, we observe that the “Why Us?” essay, in whatever permutation, lulls students into spewing clichés, empty hyperbolic proclamations, and other vapid, “let me just fill up this space” commentary.
Don’t worry—the task before you may be challenging, but it’s hardly nuclear physics. Everything you need to know to write a winning “Why Us” Essay can be reduced to seven fairly straightforward tips. The list below begins by highlighting a series of important “don’ts” and ends with the “do’s” that are essential for success. Follow all seven tips with fidelity and we guarantee that your essay will sparkle.
1. Avoid empty superlatives
Imagine an admissions officer, at the end of a long day’s work, getting ready to digest his or her 37th “why this college?” answer of the day. Picking up your essay, the officer learns that you want to attend their school because it is “great” and “has a stellar reputation.” Yawns ensue. After being reminded for the 37th time today of their school’s U.S. News and World Report ranking, they take another sip of coffee and move on to the next file.
Heaping generic praise on your school is not going to sway anyone. If you’re going to shower a college with flattery, make it as specific and genuine as you possibly can. This requires research (more on this a moment).
2. Don’t play “Why Us?” Mad Libs
If you are applying to 8-10 schools, and will thus be composing 8-10 of these essays, your inclination to take shortcuts is completely understandable. Just make sure that these timesavers don’t turn into admissions-killers.
Having a general structure for all of your essays is okay, but try to avoid playing the fill-in-the-blank game. There are two main reasons we advise this: 1) Your essay will feel generic and uninspired and 2) you are more prone to mistakenly reference the wrong school’s name, mascot, colors, etc.
If, due to a time crunch, you end up playing a degree of college application Mad Libs, at least make sure you play it flawlessly. The last thing you want to do is tell the University of Florida that you’ve always been a huge Seminoles fan.
3. Ditch the non-essential details
On your visit to Brown, you made sure to try the famous pumpkin pancakes at Louis Family Restaurant. Awesome! Hope you found them to be delicious but if you feel inclined to write about the experience, do so on Yelp, not as part of your “Why Us?” essay.
Many essays contain the equivalent of, “I can picture myself strolling through Branford Courtyard (Yale)…” Specifics about why you want to attend a given school needs to be more meaningful than referencing campus landmarks and attractions.
Other details that won’t set you apart include odes to features like the “scenic New England autumns,” the “heavenly weather” at UC-San Diego or the “roar of the crowd on Saturdays at Michigan Stadium.” While there is nothing inherently wrong or off-putting about referencing restaurants, campus landmarks, weather, or sports, they ultimately take up valuable word-count real estate without doing anything to differentiate you from the pack.
4. The goal is not sameness
The best recipe for creating something unoriginal is beginning from a place of fear. It’s easy to play it super-safe and get sucked-into the clichés and tropes of the “Why Us?” essay. In the end you may produce a competent essay, but at a school with a single-digit admit rate, just about everyone will have produced something competent. To gain an admissions edge, you need to transcend competent blandness.
It all boils down to introductory game theory. In a competitive environment with more losers than winners (think of Stanford’s 5% or Columbia’s 7% admission rates), blending in with the pack isn’t going to add value to your candidacy. At least 95% of your equally brilliant peers applying to highly completive institutions will produce essays that lack an obvious flaw, but that isn’t the objective of an applicant wishing to distinguish him or herself.
To be clear, we would never advocate being different just for the sake of it—writing your essay in Dothraki, painting your response in watercolor, or writing something intentionally controversial. Your job is to be different in an organic and sincere way. So, how does one do that? We’re going to start answering that question right now…
5. Show that you did your homework
Let’s amend our uninspired example from our first tip: University X is “great” because Professor Anderson’s research on the human genome inspired you to study biology and you are impressed by the “stellar reputation” of their one-of-kind undergraduate research initiatives. You go on to lavish praise on their state-of-the-art laboratories that were completely revamped in 2016, with further renovations scheduled for 2019. In expressing your individual passion for biology, you paint a picture (not in watercolor) of how attending University X would tie-in to your academic and career aims.
Now, you have gotten the admission officer’s attention. Remember, admissions officers want to see that you have done serious homework on their institution indicative of students who, if admitted, is likely to actually enroll (the whole “demonstrated interest” thing).
So, where does one find this type of substantive information? We recommend utilizing the top college guidebooks, a real-life or virtual tour of campus, a chat with a university rep, or some good old-fashioned Googling to gather what you need.
6. Say more about your passions
In addition to highlighting elements of a school that appeal to you, this essay also provides a venue to further explain what makes you tick and why this particular college is the ideal milieu in which to cultivate your unique passions. What clubs, activities, or study abroad locales appeal to you? Are there unique degree programs or undergraduate research opportunities that will enhance your learning experience? Is there something different about the school’s philosophy, commitment to undergraduate education, required coursework, or foundational courses?
If you can’t come up with a sincere answer to any of these questions, you might want to rethink why a given school is even on your college list in the first place.
7. Focus on the match
In order to accomplish your goal of penning a superior “Why Us?” essay, you’ll need to merge our previous two tips—showing that you did your homework and saying more about your passions. A stand-out essay seamlessly and incisively connects the opportunities that the school offers to your unique interest and talents. Here’s an example:
You did your homework and know that Reed College offers a rigorous environment for intellectually serious, self-directed students. Instead of letter grades, students receive qualitative evaluations from their professors. All courses are taught by professors, never TAs, and research opportunities for undergraduates abound. It’s little surprise that an insanely high number of Reed graduates go on to earn Ph.Ds. in their respective fields.
Now that you’ve done strong research and extracted some key facts as well as the ethos of the school, it’s time to show why you belong there. You value substantive and constructive feedback over chasing A’s. You plan on getting a graduate degree and want to immerse yourself in research throughout your undergraduate years. You are craving direct contact with faculty. You spent your high school years independently pursuing an area of passion—creating your own reading list, seeking out adult mentors, etc.
Whether you’re interested in Reed College or one of the other 3,000 four year colleges and universities in the United States, your mission is to hone in on why that school is a great fit for you, and then, why you are a great fit for it. If, after reviewing your composition, you can check both of those boxes, and you’ve avoided the common pitfalls highlighted previously, then you can rest assured that you have mastered the “Why Us?” essay.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).