Some essay questions lend themselves to the “Aha!” moment: You read the question, and you immediately know what you’re going to write about.
We haven’t seen many essay questions like that lately. 🙁
Sometimes the very first idea that you come up with when looking at an essay question is totally ideal and a perfect fit to the question. More often, the best essays are developed through a process of digging and analysis, and then outlining and examination, to carry the idea all the way through to see what it will communicate about you.
When a school asks a question like “What’s your favorite food?” you would think that should be pretty easy to answer. But even that’s not an essay question. That is, in fact, the type of question that Stanford has asked within its online application, and they really do want an honest answer! UVA has asked similar questions before, about what you’d want to do in Charlottesville if you’re a student at Darden. These types of questions could also come up on an interview, such as a classic HBS interview question, “What’s your favorite book?”
There’s no “right” answer to any of these, as they are literally asking for your personal preference, so how could there be? Yet many BSers tie themselves into knots to come up with something that sounds appropriately interesting. With questions like these, the adcom is trying to get a feel for who you are.
So what’s the best strategy to use in answering?
Often, no strategy at all. What we mean by that is, the answer to use is the very first thing you thought of when you read the question. Almost always, that answer is, like, the truth. And the truth is going to guide you to freedom.
But what about these actual essays, where you need to go into depth with something meaningful in response to the prompt?
With the very vague and unstructured questions that many adcoms have posed as part of their app requirements these days, then the “very first thing” technique might not serve you as well.
The best essays tend to materialize through working on them – not just on working on the grammar and the sentence structure and how you’re presenting your ideas (though that’s very important too) but more importantly, working on the ideas themselves.
Writing essays is essentially a creative endeavor. (Except, please be warned: It’s not a creative WRITING endeavor — too many BSers try to get too fancy in execution, which causes all sorts of other problems!)
It is, though, a creative endeavor and we’ll try to help you understand why we say that.
Anyone who’s tried to create something will recognize that quality output – something you’re proud of, that represents you – takes time.
That’s true regardless of whether we’re talking about writing a poem or designing a house or painting a picture or coding some software. In order to get it to the point where you’re not embarrassed to show someone else the end product, you need to devote significant effort, and an extended period of time, to the endeavor.
Same with essays.
EssaySnark is not in a position to say WHY this is the way it is, we’re just calling attention to the fact that it is.
When you first blast out your draft of an essay in response to a question – say, “What matters most to you?”, or “Introduce yourself” – you’re being asked to represent WHO YOU ARE on the page.
Do you know who you are?
You probably THINK that you do, but can you capture that and represent it efficiently in the space of 750 to 1,000 words through the written word?
Are you a Hemingway?
Note: You don’t need to be a Hemingway to write a good essay (though Hemingway definitely was a stellar essay writer!). The Hemingway style of short, declarative sentences is certainly a model to emulate. But don’t put essay-writing up on some sort of pedestal and make it something you’ll never be good at.
When you’re writing about who you are to the adcom, the most important part is not the writing (though that does matter). The most important part is HAVING A CLEAR IDEA OF WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY.
The first idea that springs to mind when you read the essay question is almost guaranteed to be only a surface-level answer. That’s often a good place to START – but when we say “start”, we mean that’s where YOU will start the process of digging. It’s not where you will start with your writing.
When you feel dissatisfied with the way an essay has turned out, then that’s a clear signal that there’s more under the surface. Keep going, Brave Supplicant. Keep mining those depths. We’re betting that there are likely even more brilliant ideas lurking beneath the surface, if you will only continue that process.