Guide to Great Writing

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Guide to Great Writing

The process of executing a powerful and persuasive application essay is both an art and a science. There are numerous resources available that can assist you in the science of a writing sample. These resources will help you strategize, build the right story, support key themes, express fit, and articulate the very best aspects of your candidacy. In other words, essay science is something you can receive a great deal of help with. The art of essay writing falls primarily on the shoulders of the author.

That said, you are not alone in this endeavor. We have compiled many of our proven writing hints and suggestions into one document that you can use to bolster your writing, so that by the time you start working on a first draft, you are much further down the road to a fantastic admission essay.

Step 1 – Create a writing environment. One of the biggest and most easily avoided mistakes when it comes to essay writing is that applicants too often write in an inappropriate setting or at an inappropriate time. What makes an environment inappropriate? It could be many things, but it almost always centers around a negative impact on the author’s ability to focus. Examples of some common problems with environment:

  • Noisy area

  • Cluttered or messy workspace

  • Too many distractions or opportunities to focus on other tasks

  • Rushed timeframe

  • Writing at odd hours, particularly late at night

  • Uncomfortable seating and lighting

If the problems above seem obvious or like something from a bad copywriting manual, just know that each example above is unfortunately very common. You might even find yourself guilty of committing some of these writing environment sins. Working on an essay while riding the train to work, outlining your paragraphs in the student lounge, keeping one eye on your email inbox, slumped on the couch late at night in a dimly lit room … all very realistic scenarios in which you might find yourself composing an essay or a personal statement. Considering the number of essays you will write and the busy lives that most graduate school applicants lead, it is not surprising to see people cramming in work whenever they get a break in the action.

That said, you must be willing to make the commitment to your writing. If you want to write like a pro, you have to approach the task like a professional.

Here are five things you can do to create the proper writing environment:

  1. Block out time in your schedule to work on your essays. Ensure that the block of time is long enough to get significant work done. You should factor in time to think, not just time to write. “Writer’s block” is bound to occur and you want to be able to push through any slumps before your session concludes. Adherence to a schedule is mandatory.

  2. Find a proper work space and use it every time. You want to create good habits and allow yourself to focus and an easy way to do that is to sit at a desk, with proper lighting, and a comfortable chair. It sounds obvious, but it helps a great deal. Try not to let your office or cubicle at work double as your writing work space, but as long as you can disengage from the work day, writing in your office is better than writing on the train or on the couch with your laptop propped up on your knees.

  3. Shut down your wireless connection. Nothing – repeat nothing – is more distracting than the looming temptation to check email, or, or Defamer, or whatever your Internet preference might be. For the duration of your writing session, turn off your phone, turn off your wireless, and concentrate on the task at hand.

  4. Pay attention to the audio environment. Unlike when you prepare for a standardized test and want to simulate test-taking conditions, you do not have to replicate your essay performance. So don’t take the writing environment component too far and reduce yourself to a notepad, pencil, and swinging bulb overhead. Discover what makes you comfortable and allows you to concentrate. Some people enjoy listening to music, while others are distracted. Perhaps you need earplugs to drown out the sound of the TV from the other room. Consider looking into the many available relaxation and concentration tools that are available in audio form. It’s all about getting comfortable, settled in, and focused.

  5. Eliminate mental clutter. There is nothing more difficult than writing while daydreaming or dwelling on problems. Your best writing will come when you are able to focus all of your attention to the task at hand. Obviously, achieving total focus is easier said than done, but it can still be accomplished if you eliminate tasks from your to-do list beforehand and vow never to write when you are upset or fresh off of dealing with a complicated issue.

Step 2 – Practice. It may sound strange to practice essay writing in the midst of an application process, but there is no single thing you can do to master this art form that is better than practicing. While the old adage “practice makes perfect” may not be entirely true, there is no doubt that practice does breed comfort. Getting comfortable with word counts, themes, and structure is paramount if you are going to position yourself to get the most out of the process.

There are three ways, in particular, that practice will manifest itself in immediate results:

  1. You will be more efficient with your words and be better able to stay within word and page limits. There is no worse feeling than sitting down to write a two-page personal statement, pouring your heart into a first draft … and realizing that you are over by half a page and that you forgot to double the line spacing. Practicing with various word counts and page limits will help you see the value in economical writing and enable you to see ways of condensing your work in order to get more affirmative statements out of fewer words.

  1. You will be forced to think through your motivations. The more times you grapple with common essay questions and themes, the more clarity you will bring to the table when you sit down to craft responses on your actual applications. Answering the same question in multiple ways or addressing the same themes embedded in different answers is a great way to really hone in on your reasons for pursuing admission to graduate school. Getting comfortable with your motivation allows you to interject those answers into your application without resorting to contrived or forced answers.

  1. You will get comfortable using the word “I.” One of the most consistent problems we see with candidates' essays and personal statements is that they are not crafted as a bold and clear portrayal of the individual in question.  In almost every instance, this issue stems from a discomfort with writing from a first person, or "I" perspective. 

    From the time we are old enough to write in complete sentences, our teachers have encouraged us to avoid using the word "I" when we write.  Unless you are writing a novel in the first person, it is almost always an inappropriate way to craft a document, whether it is in the context of journalism, research, or persuasion.  Unfortunately for all of the model English students out there, the personal statement is the one time when using the word "I" is completely necessary.  After all, it is your story - your case to make to the reader in question. 

    Most applicants understand this, of course, and so the main problem is not an awkward avoidance of the word "I," but rather a massive proliferation of the pronoun.  It is as if the floodgates open and every sentence starts with "I believe" or "I want to" or some other version of the same.  This is due to a lack of comfort and skill with the device.  Practicing is the best way to gain that level of comfort. Not only that, but the practice does not even have to take the form of essays. Take a stab at writing a few short stories or essays that feature a first person narrative.  Write 600 words about taking a bus ride, completely from your perspective.  Get comfortable with offering a genuine, first person narrative without starting every sentence with "I."  You will probably feel impatient writing essays about taking a lunch break or cooking a meal, but it helps tremendously.  Practice with this structure won't necessarily make perfect (it takes great authors years to master the form), but it will make you comfortable.  And if you feel comfortable with the narrative style, you can stop worrying about counting your "I" uses and wincing at stilted phrasings, and instead focus on content and on telling a great story that encapsulates who you are as a person and an applicant and articulates that message to the reader. 

Step 3 – Be specific! Most applicants know that they are supposed to be specific in their essays and personal statements, yet the majority of writing samples are still filled with vague proclamations. Part of the reason for the disconnect is that there is some level of confusion as to what specificity means. It does not mean that you merely provide examples. In fact, if you’ve ever heard the phrase “specific examples,” then you know that the words mean different things (otherwise it would be redundant). Writing with specificity means eliminating the diluted, vague statements in your writing in favor of detailed explanations. Yes, that can often mean providing examples, but sometimes it is as simple as expanding on an idea.

Consider the following sentence, which is typical essay fare:

Upon conclusion of the deal, I had the opportunity to hear a diversity of opinions and enjoy the company of a variety of different types of people, from unique backgrounds.”

The example sentence is the opposite of specific as it reads as vague, Inspiration 101 content. Consider a more specific alternative:

Upon conclusion of the deal, I dined with a most unusual dinner party and bore witness to the sight of a died-in-the-wool Republican and a bleeding heart Democrat arguing their political views and opinions to a Korean businessman with just two days of American culture under his belt.”

Granted, the second sentence burns up more precious words and while managing your word count is important, you never want to sacrifice specificity just to trim space. Lending a rich and powerful voice to trite sentiments is the surest way to keep your essay from being passed over and dismissed as standard fare.

The best way to inject specificity into your writing is to search your essay for anything that feels clichéd or “too easy.” Look for buzz words that have lost their impact due to overuse and swap in the exact idea you are trying to convey. Most of all, examine your conclusions to ensure that they actually say something. If you examine the first example above, you can see that buzz words like “diversity,” “variety,” “unique,” and “backgrounds” populate the sentence, rendering it nothing more than a cliché. By articulating the message with specific details, the sentence is transformed into a rich statement on a truly memorable conclusion to a business deal.

Step 4 –Diversify your style. When handing out advice on essay writing, many experts encourage applicants to use short sentences. Others demand essays to be rich in detail, which require a longer sentence. So which is it?

The answer, of course, is both. The mark of strong writing – of interesting writing – is stylistic diversity. You want a blend of short and long, simple and complex. Words have power and the way we string them together can call attention to the most important themes or points. Here is a quick breakdown of the types of stylistic devices you want to mix into your work:

Simple sentences. The anchors of any essay, short and simple sentences are the surest bet when conveying an important message in a small space. Simple sentences keep the reader interested and afford your work clarity, as you reduce the risk that a thought will go on too long and run out of steam. Perhaps most importantly, using a shorter sentence lowers the odds of committing a mistake likely to occur in a more complex sentence. It also goes without saying that simple sentences are the friend of any author battling a word count.

Compound sentences. Not only is merely linking two simple sentences together a great way to diversify your style, but compound sentences can bridge ideas and lead into a powerful conclusion. It is also useful to mitigate a weakness in a compound sentence so that the final thought expressed by the sentence is the solution or takeaway rather than the weakness itself. Remember that compound sentences always feature a coordinating word such as and, but, nor, for, so, or yet.

Complex sentences. We’ll avoid the word “long” here, because there is no value in drafting a sentence that is long just for the sake of being long. However, there are times when you should use complex sentences that articulate multiple ideas. A well-crafted and artful complex sentence is suggestive of strong writing ability, which is one of the traits being evaluated in your application. Remember that a complex sentence is not merely the joining of two simple sentences (that is a compound sentence), but rather the joining of an independent clause and a dependent clause. Look for subordinating words such as since, after, although, or when.

Use of a series. One of the most common questions with regard to writing style is how to make the words in a series stand out to the reader. Again, diversity is ideal, but be careful not to go too far. Applicants see the power of simple sentences and go overboard in listing out a series of thoughts as individual sentences. Listing a series of ideas as separate sentences is a device that has become increasingly common and effective in fiction writing, but is dangerous ground in a professional document.

An example of what not to do:

My goal is to graduate from a top program with the necessary tools for success. Business acumen. Management experience. Vision.”

Play it safe and express this notion in a more conventional way:

My goal is to graduate from a top program with the necessary tools for success, which include business acumen, management experience, and vision.”

Whatever you do, never decide to list the serial items as individual paragraphs. We’ve seen this tactic and it is not effective.

Step 5 – Marry your thesaurus. Variety is the spice of life and that goes for food, people, travel, and, yes, words. Readers are human beings and they do not respond well to being bored out of their minds. Cut them some slack by spicing up the language of your work. The easiest way to raise the linguistic bar is through word choice; finding appropriate synonyms to stand in for tired words is one of the most effective things you can do to improve your writing. The trick is in finding descriptive words while avoiding esoteric or “showy” language.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Play it straight while drafting, spice it up while revising. You’ve probably been warned against using fancy words in your writing (the old expression “Don’t use a 10 dollar word when a one dollar word will do” comes to mind) and that is a worthwhile piece of advice. That said, it doesn’t require that you be bland. The best way to avoid using forced language and ridiculous words is to express your thoughts in the most straightforward way possible on the first pass. Then – and only then – should you go back through with your handy thesaurus (you don’t need an actual thesaurus, by the way, simply highlight the word in Microsoft Word and right click to find the “synonyms” option) and find more reader-friendly and natural replacements.

  1. Say each word out loud; then define it. If you can’t pronounce a word, or you don’t know exactly what it means, don’t use it. You should only use language that you can repeat orally and words to which you know the meaning. Just because a word is synonymous with another word does not ensure that they mean exactly the same thing within the context of your idea.

  1. Be bold. If you are interested in writing at the highest level, consider investing in a great thesaurus and experimenting with word origins. In particular, make an effort to use English words with Germanic origins. Most words in the English language derive from either Romance languages rooted in Latin, or Germanic languages. Romance words are typically more elegant, while Germanic words are more forceful and in most instances, there is a counterpart for each word. Depending on the situation, one is more appropriate than the other. In the case of persuasive writing steeped in results, forceful, Germanic words are often preferable.

Step 6 – Get passive aggressive. This step is short but sweet. Scour your writing for any passive voice and immediately change it to the active voice. Writing in a passive voice is not effective in persuasive writing, so you should take the opportunity to rid yourself of the habit now.

How can you ensure that you have stripped out your passivity?

For starters, look for the following verbs: is, where, was, could have, and would have. This will clue you into instances in which the object of the sentence is “doing” the verb, which creates the passive voice. You want to make sure that the subject of the sentence is the one “doing” the verb in question.

Note the following:

Passive: The personal statement was drafted by the applicant.

Active: The applicant drafted the personal statement.

Note the subject and object of the sentence. Again, the subject must be the one performing the verb in question (draft, in the example sentence). It is more difficult in English than in other languages to dissect subjects and objects because the words remain the same whether they are subjective or objective (exceptions include who/whom and I/me), but this is the occasion to spend more time getting assistance and getting it right.

Step 7 – Link everything together. Given the strict parameters that often accompany essays and personal statements, there is a tendency for applicants to write in stilted, disconnected paragraphs. When you have to express a number of ideas or cite a series of reasons – and do it all within a strict word or page limit – choppy writing is a common result. Fortunately, there is an easy and graceful solution.

The key is to link your paragraphs together with transition words. In addition to elevating the art of your writing, the use of a transition word requires you to bridge two thoughts and lead into a new idea while acknowledging the previous concept. Transition words will make your essays read more smoothly, provide logical structure, and allow your readers to easily navigate from the first point to the last.

Take note that while the concept of applying transition words is a simple one, there is still an art to selecting the right word or phrase. It starts with examining the purpose of the sentence or paragraph and determining what type of connection you are striving to make. Consider the following:

Words and Phrases to Use

Additions – Good for tacking on additional reasons or supporting ideas. Also, again, as well as, besides, coupled with, furthermore, in addition, likewise, moreover, and similarly.

Consequence – Best used to arrive at conclusions. Accordingly, as a result, consequently, for this reason, subsequently, therefore, and wherefore.

Illustration – To cite specific examples of a more general concept. For example, for instance, illustrated with, as an example, in this case, and exemplified by.

Emphasis – To call attention to a prominent theme or example. Chiefly, especially, namely, particularly, including, singularly, and specifically.

Similarity – For bridging similar concepts or ideas. Correspondingly, identically, likewise, moreover, comparatively, and coupled with.

Exception – Use sparingly, only when distancing a weakness that you are mitigating out of necessity. Aside from, barring, besides, excluding, other than, outside of, and save for.

Words and Phrases Not to Use

Generalizing – Never use a generalizing transition word or phrase, as it dilutes the specificity of your essay. As a rule, as usual, for the most part, generally, generally speaking, ordinarily, and usually.

Restatement – Avoid using a restatement transition word or phrase for conclusions; instead utilize something from the consequence group above. In essence, in other words, that is to say, in short, in brief, and to put it differently.

Diversion – Never divert your focus in an essay. By the way, incidentally.


Never use dead sentences in your writing. A “dead” sentence is something that is pure filler and that stands in for a meaningful and accurate transitional word or phrase. Dead sentences begin with phrases such as: it is often said, it can be determined, and we can surmise.

Step 8 – Scrub out your indexing. Indexing is when an author uses substitute words to stand in for a thought previously expressed. Rather than restate the concept or, better yet, elaborate on the premise, the author swaps in an index word as a placeholder.

Consider the following sentences:

The candidate applied to Harvard Law School. He hoped to learn a great deal about due process by doing this.

“This” is an index word that stands in for the previously stated action of applying to Harvard Law School. Index words do not read well and they can indicate either lazy writing or a last minute attempt to shave words to fit under the word limit.

A better way of framing the second example sentence would be something along the lines of:

He hoped to learn a great deal about due process at one of America’s finest institutions.

Index words are often indicated by this, that, and these and come at the beginning or end of a sentence.

Step 9 – Manage the limit. Nothing strikes fear into the heart of an applicant like a word or page limit. It is an imposing number whether you are trying to reach the limit, or, more likely, trying to stay under that magic threshold. It confines your expression and suggests that whatever needs to be said can be done so in the exact amount of space allotted.

Do not let the limit intimidate you. Like every aspect of an application process, what can easily be construed as a hurdle is merely an opportunity to stand out from the crowd. Targeted, refined writing will allow you to convey more with less and use the word count to your advantage.

The following is a five-pronged method for handling the challenges of a word limit:

  1. Write with clarity and brevity. As discussed in Step 4 (“Diversify your style”), you want a mix of simple, compound, and complex sentences, but the backbone of your essay should be simple sentences that convey points in a concise manner.

  2. Practice. As stated in Step 2, practicing is the best way to hone your skills and master the art of saying more with less. The more you write, the more adept you will become at finding a better way to state your idea. Words will melt away.

  3. Respectfully push the limit. If the page limit is two pages words and you have a perfect personal statement at two and a half pages, do not revise it simply to get under the count. Rather, try a difference font, go to 1.5 line spacing, or even just leave the overlap. Programs will usually allow you about 10% as a buffer zone, so feel free to go over by just a bit. That said, do not push the envelope and exceed the limit by more than that, because readers will notice. Once they notice, they will either be frustrated by the extra work it takes to read the personal statement or insulted by your lack of respect for the guidelines. Neither outcome is good for you.

  4. Pay attention to flow. There is nothing more obvious or underwhelming than an essay that has clearly been chopped down to fit under a word limit. If you are 100 words over the limit on a 600-word essay, you need to revise the entire essay. Do not simply lop off a paragraph or a sentence here and there. Furthermore, eliminating examples and transition words is not an option. The best course of action is to first revise all cumbersome and wordy sentences and then see where that leaves you. If you are still over the limit, go back to the drawing board and execute an entirely new essay. Stripping your work of its style and grace is not the solution.

Step 10 – Revisions. It is shocking how often applicants present essays (either to professors, consultants, or even to the admissions committee) as nothing more than a glorified draft. Crafting an essay is a time intensive process that requires a great deal of revision in order to write with economy, power, and persuasion. Granted, you will go through multiple revisions, but the candidate who takes the time to execute multiple drafts will be leaps and bounds ahead of the curve.

Proper revision requires at least three steps:

  1. On Screen. First, review your work on your computer screen and make changes as you go. Doing so will clean up the bulk of your original errors and the most obvious misuses of style and structure. You want to limit the number of mark-ups on the printed page, so a scrub in Microsoft Word can be very helpful in preserving a clean document going forward.

  1. Pen and Paper (later). Walk away from you work and give it some time before sitting down and reviewing the document carefully in printed form. Doing so allows you to read from a fresh perspective and also lavish more attention on the finer points, such as transition words, passive voice, and indexing.

  1. Read Aloud. Most people take the time to review their own work, but few actually read it out loud. Reading aloud forces you to read each word and ensure proper inflection. Reading out loud is a great way to spot excess words, misplaced modifiers, and other issues that will trip up a reader.

This 10-step guide enables applicants to create a starting point for great essays. A finished product is only as good as its starting point, so be sure to take these tips to heart and truly put in the effort to become a great writer. This document is comprised of techniques that can be learned and practices that can be implemented.

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