One of the hardest things about writing essays is figuring out if what you’ve written is any good.
Well actually no that’s not true.
Almost everyone who finishes their essays thinks they’re good. Or else, you would not have finished them; you’d still be in revision-mode, trying to get what is in your head down on the page.
There’s also of course the very common opposite phenomenon. Anybody who’s tried some classically artistic endeavor like painting a picture goes through the same type of frustration: You have this idea in your head, but then your fingers seem not to cooperate, and what ends up on the canvas is nothing like what you’re seeing in your mind. It can be enough for many people to give up immediately.
Don’t give up, BSer! You can totally do this. It just requires trying again.
These are SKILLS that you are building, and by definition, you will NOT HAVE PERSPECTIVE on what you create.
It’s all about this mountain that you are climbing, as we laid out extensively here in this post on The Stages of Learning (Pro Tip: When we link to stuff, you might want to click on it and go read it – we have so many words of value to offer! And, as you gain skills, you may be surprised at how much new stuff you discover on a post that you had even read before! These techniques have a way of revealing themselves slowly over time. The more you work at it, and study, the more you will get it – we promise!)
Basically what happens is, you think you’re more competent than you are. It’s not until you’re really competent that you can actually effectively evaluate your competence — and even then, all sorts of factors like pesky emotions of self-doubt and low confidence can still come in and sabotage you from seeing things as they really are.
So at the beginning stages — and all of you are beginners still — what you need to do is, write the essay, then test it.
Does the first sentence answer the question?
Does the last?
What are you trying to convey to the reader as a result of this long section?
What are we supposed to know about you, now that we’ve read through?
Try reverse-engineering your stories. What is the takeaway message you want the reader to have? Where in this content is that being revealed to them? If that’s not on the page, it’s not being conveyed.
Here’s another test that we often suggest BSers try (and we are doubtful that many of them ever do):
Tell your story to someone who totally knows nothing about your field or industry. Like your gramma. Sit her down and explain what you did that was so important or impressive. Give it five sentences.
Then ask her to repeat back what you told her, but in her own words.
(This is not a diss on grammas. It’s an exercise to make you communicate simply.)
If Gramma cannot do this, then the problem is in how you’re presenting yourself.
There’s either too much jargon, too many million-dollar words, too much stilted language, or just too much complexity.
Or, it might be too little detail.
You may find that feedback frustrating. How can there be too much complexity simultanous to too little detail?
It needs to be THE RIGHT details.
Are you setting the stage? Are you helping the reader understand context, before you begin?
Often, shorter sentences are easier to do that. One main idea in each one.
Here’s another tip: Can you construct an outline backwards from the draft that you have? Does that outline make sense? Is there a clear argument laid out that explicitly supports the answer you’ve given to the question the adcom has asked?
We’ve got lots of these tricks up our sleeves – but the best thing is for YOU to put your little analytical cap on and do this type of assessment yourself. Test your ideas. Really READ the sentences you’ve got. Do they even make sense?
When you’re knee-deep in your own writing, you won’t have this perspective. You’ll assume that all of it is good, because you’re the one who wrote it, and you’re now reading it – and you know what you are TRYING to say. You may not appreciate that the words don’t actually say that.
Language is this funny thing. It lets us transfer a thought from one person’s head to another.
Do your words do that effectively?
The way essays fall apart is when the thinking is unclear — maybe you don’t really know what you’re trying to say.
Or when the writing is unclear — maybe you’re trying to be too fancy in how you say it.
Don’t let yourself get all trying-to-sound-important in how you write. Use the same words you use every day, just formal sentences. Clear. Direct. Don’t whip out the thesaurus or try to sound smart. It does not work.
More often than not, essays need some revision, and then revision some more — not just on the micro level at individual words, verbs, terms in a sentence, but overarching, in terms of the picture you’re painting and the journey that you take the reader on from your intro to the conclusion.
(Shameless Plug: Our Essay Decimator lets you know if you got it!)
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