There is an assumption in the world that an essay is something literary you write for school about a topic that no one but your teacher will ever care about. At first glance, the dictionary does nothing to allay that sense. The very first definition is of “a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.”
The reality, if any of you have read a blog recently, is that essays can be much more than that. They can be anything really. And here, the dictionary comes to our aid. The second definition of an essay is “anything resembling such a composition.” So really, essays are written compositions about anything.
Unfortunately, they can also be annoying, tedious and obnoxious. Whether it’s a high school essay, a college research paper or even an important office memo at your new job, at any given moment chances are you’d probably rather not be doing it. And the fact that you HAVE to do it just adds to the misery.
The stress of it all has twenty different things going on in your head at once: Where to start? What do I write about? How do I keep the momentum? What about pacing? I need a good grade, or a promotion, WITH A RAISE, a lot is riding on this!
Calm yourself. Writing the perfect paper, the kickass memo, the stellar essay — about ANYTHING — is not only possible, it’s easy.
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What Is My Secret?
An essay is a lot like a military operation. It takes discipline, foresight, research, strategy, and, if done right, ends in total victory. That’s why I stole my formula from an ancient military tactic, invented by the Spartans (the guys in the movie 300). This tactic was a favorite of great generals like Brasidas and Xenophon (an actual student of Socrates) and was deployed successfully in combat countless times. I figure: if this one trick can protect a ten thousand-man march through hostile territory, country after country, it can probably work for something as silly and temporary as a paper or an essay.
We’re going to use this tactic as a metaphor — also a great term to use in our essays — for the structural elements of our essay. It will allow us to forget your teacher’s boring prompt. Forget “Commentary/Concrete Detail/Commentary/Concrete Detail” and all that nonsense.
Here’s Xenophon talking about this tactic in his Anabasis:
It would be safer for us to march with the hoplites forming a hollow square, so that the baggage and the general crowd would be more secure inside. If, then, we are told now who should be in the front of the square and who organize the leading detachments, and who should be on the two flanks, and who should be responsible for the rear.
Basically, their tactic was this: to successfully march or retreat, the general brings his troops together in an outward facing square with their supplies and wounded in the middle and the strongest troops at the front and back. As they moved away from unfavorable ground, the men would defend their side, stepping out only slightly to meet their attackers and then retreating immediately back to the safety of the shape. And thus they were completely impenetrable, able to travel fluidly as well as slowly demoralize the attacking army. As Xenophon wrote, the idea was that having prepared a hollow square in advance, “we should not have to plan [everything defense related] when the enemy is approaching but could immediately make use of those who have been specially detailed for the job.”
My method works the same. Consider your introduction as the creator of the shape, and then the following paragraphs making up each side. They venture outwards when called to, but never abandon the safety of the formation entirely. It is a process of constant realignment, maintaining the square at all cost. In terms of “writing,” you need only to create a handful of original sentences for the entire essay: a thesis, a theme, a mini-thesis that begins each paragraph and a concluding sentence that says what it all means. Everything else is a variation of these four sentences in some way. Together they create the square, and this serves as the point of return — much like Chuck Palahniuk’s concept of “chorus lines” (see Fight Club, where, whenever the plot gets off track, he immediately comes back to something like, “I am Jack’s sense of rejection”). The idea is to keep the reader protected, just the troops flowing in and out of the square kept the hollow middle, and thus the whole square, safe.
Let’s say you’re a high school student taking English or a college student stuck in a writing-intensive core class. You’re going to have to write a paper. It’s just a fact of life. So instead of fighting it, let’s just make it as easy as possible.
The outline I’m about to give you is simple. Essentially, the format requires just six original sentences and the rest is nothing more than reiteration and support of the ideas in those original sentences. Just like the tactics of Brasidas, you forge the rudimentary shape with the introduction and then all that’s left is defense — everyone (every word) knows their job.
No longer is the professor grading you in terms of the prompt, because you have redefined the dynamic on your terms. You have taken the prompt and made it your own. By emphatically laying out your own rules and track, excellence is achieved simply by following them. You place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise.
I’ll go into specific examples soon, but here’s a hypothetical outline for a five-page paper:
1. Begin with a broad, conclusive hook. This will be the meta-theme of the paper. Example from a paper on The Great Gatsby: “When citizens exhibit a flagrant disregard of morality and law, societies quickly crumble.”
2. Thesis. This needs to specify and codify the hook in relation to the prompt/subject. Ex: “This atmosphere as shown in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — with blatant corruption and illegal activity — eventually seems to become all but incompatible with a meaningful incarnation of the American Dream.”
3. One sentence laying foundation for first body paragraph. (These are mini-theses for each point you will argue.) Ex: Though Gatsby was a bootlegger, he was driven by hope and love, rather than the greed that motivated his status-obsessed guests.
4. One Sentence for second body paragraph. (Just like the sentence you just did)
5. One sentence for third body paragraph.
6. Restate the hook and thesis into a single transition sentence into the first paragraph. “The 1920s as the epitome of excess and reactionism symbolized a sharp break in the American tradition; one that no one seemed to mind.”
Notes/Advice: Some say the thesis should go at the bottom of the intro instead of the top, which I think is a huge mistake. The point of a paper is to make an assertion and then support it. You can’t support it until you’ve made it.
1. Rewrite first body paragraph thesis.
2. Support the mini-thesis with evidence and analysis.
3. Restate body paragraph thesis in the context of thesis as a whole.
-Begin with your strongest piece of evidence
-Introduce quotes/points like this: Broad->Specific->Analysis/Conclusion
-Always integrate the quote, and try to incorporate analysis into the same sentence. As a general rule never use more than 5-7 of the author’s words. Normally you can use even less: “It was Jay, who despite the corruption around him, looked forward to what was described as an ‘orgiastic future.'”
1. Rewrite second body paragraph thesis.
2. Support mini-thesis.
3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.
1. Rewrite third body paragraph thesis.
2. Support mini-thesis.
3. Restate body paragraph thesis in context of the paragraph above and thesis as whole.
1. Restate hook/meta-theme.
2. Specify this with restatement of thesis once more.
3. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
4. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
5. One sentence for each body paragraph, surmising its assertion.
6. Rewrite hook and thesis into a conclusion sentence.
7. Last sentence must transition to a general statement about human nature. “The American Dream — and any higher aspiration — requires a society that both looks forward and onwards as well as holds itself to corrective standards.”
That’s it. Seriously. It works for a paper of 300 words just as much as it does for one of 300 pages. It’s self-generating, self-reinforcing, and self-fulfilling. Could you ask for anything better?
Just like the tactics of the great generals, by laying out the square in advance with clear, orderly lines, you insulate yourself from the chaos of improvisation. You mark the boundaries now so you don’t have to later, and excellence is achieved simply by filling them in with your sentences. Each paragraph is given a singular purpose and its only duty is fulfillment. Like I said earlier, with this structure you place the reader in the middle of the square, protected by all sides, and methodically move them forward, defending doubts and objections as they arise. And that is a great essay.
image – Shutterstock
Choosing Your Topic
Once you have a pool of essay topic ideas, it’s time to narrow them down and pick the topic about which you’re going to write — but if you have several promising topic ideas, how do you choose among them? Again, you shouldn’t pick one candidate simply because it seems to be the most exciting or unique option. Rather, you should choose your topic based primarily on what subject will allow you to write the best essay.
In this case, the “best” essay is the one that showcases your strong writing skills, demonstrates the personal qualities (thoughtfulness, curiosity, dedication, passion, and so on) that you want colleges to see in you, and allows colleges to get to know you better on a different level from the rest of your application.
The topic you initially like the most may not be the one that allows you to write the best possible essay. Of course, you’re likely to write a better essay on a topic in which you have a strong interest, but there is some strategy involved in choosing a topic as well.
A thoughtful and well-written essay on a topic that might initially seem more mundane will benefit you far more than a dull or poorly-written essay on a more exciting-sounding topic. Choosing an unusual experience you’ve had as your essay subject may even tempt you to let the experience itself do the legwork, rather than using that subject as a vehicle to tell colleges more about who you are as a person.
If you can find meaning and significance in a small incident, that can be incredibly compelling for your readers. Drawing from your ordinary experiences to illustrate a larger point will make your essay all the more personal and revealing. Remember, the value of your essay is much more in how you write about your experiences than what experiences you write about.
A final note on choosing your essay topic: You don’t necessarily need to be absolutely committed to a topic right away. If it becomes clear after you start outlining or writing that your chosen topic isn’t going to work as well as you would like, there’s nothing wrong with starting over with a new topic.
Feel free to go back to your brainstormed pool of topics, or even to come up with something new entirely. Just make sure that you have enough time left to develop and edit your new essay appropriately. This is all the more reason to start the essay writing process early — if your topic ends up not working out, you’ll still have time to try a different approach.
Making Your Topic Shine
Once you’ve selected a topic, you need to figure out how to develop an essay from it that is technically skillful, compelling to the reader, and true to the vision of yourself that you’re working to portray in your application.
If you’re worried that your essay topic is not interesting or exciting enough on its own, you may be extra concerned about how to build a strong essay upon that topic. In reality, however, everyone — no matter how interesting or exciting their choice of topic might seem — should take great care in planning how they’re going to develop their basic topic statement into a full-fledged essay.
To write a truly effective college essay, you’ll need to focus not on depicting and describing an event or issue in your life, but on expressing your personal experience or perspective in an interesting manner. The value of the experience and the point in writing about it lies not necessarily in what happened, but how it affected you, and in how you analyze and consider that effect.
Details are quite important here, as they’ll bring life and context to your story. Vivid and evocative details can turn an essay on a seemingly mundane topic into something truly fascinating. The details you choose to leave out are equally important; you’ll be working with a word-count limit, and it’s important that your essay be concise and readable rather than wordy and overwrought.
You’ll also need to make sure that your essay clearly develops the themes that you intend for it to develop. Relating an experience, ordinary or extraordinary, isn’t enough on its own; you have to be thoughtful about the experience and show why this experience is important enough to you to be worth inspiring your college essay.
The key to writing a strong college application essay is in your delivery. With skillful writing, powerful word choice, and a good sense of how to develop a fragment of an idea into a longer piece of writing, you can make any topic, no matter how “uninteresting” it may seem, into an exploration of issues important to you and a showcase of your skills as a communicator.
Will your essay make or break your college application?
It depends. You can take a look at our CollegeVine blog post How Important is the College Essay? for a more detailed discussion of the importance of the essay as compared to other parts of your application.
Briefly, however, a brilliant essay can’t make up for severe deficiencies in your academic qualifications, but it may have an impact otherwise, particularly at a smaller or more competitive school. If you’re on the borderline, a great essay may tip the balance toward admission. An essay that’s clearly carelessly written, inappropriate, or full of technical errors can hurt your chances of admission even if you do have great qualifications.
The bottom line is that, just as with every other part of your college application, colleges will need to see that you’ve taken the task seriously and put in your best effort. Managing your time properly is important, and you can’t work on one essay forever, but if you get started early, you should be able to put enough time into developing, writing, and editing your essay to make it a piece of writing of which you’re truly proud.
For more information about choosing and developing a college application essay topic, you can check out the CollegeVine blog for tips and tricks. Our Essay Breakdown posts about how to write the school-specific essays for various top schools contain a wealth of good ideas.
If you’re applying to colleges using the Common Application and need to complete one of its essay questions, CollegeVine has your back. Our admissions experts have analyzed each of the five Common Application essay prompts in the posts below, where you can find detailed advice on how to respond to each prompt.
If you’re applying using the Coalition Application (CAAS), we have you covered as well with our post How to Write the Coalition Application Essays 2016-2017.
CollegeVine’s admissions advisors can help you with all aspects of the application process, including developing and editing your college essay. With a fee structure that’s more affordable than those of most companies that offer college application assistance, we’re committed to helping a broader range of high school students access the resources they need to navigate the increasingly competitive world of college admissions.
Still have questions about filling out the Common Application? Check out our blog post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2017-2018.