Essay Writing Strategies

1. Pre-Writing

To get started, throw all your ideas – the expected and the unexpected, the solid and the outlandish – onto a piece of paper. Don’t censor yourself – no one need see these ideas except you. This will likely be an ugly mess. But it will also serve as a bucket from which you can draw the content of your essay.

First Draft

Begin to organize the best of these ideas into a “Shitty First Draft,” as the writer Annie Lamott calls it.

Shoot for a central idea (or thesis) that is interesting and non-obvious. You want to find something that will be honest and unique to you, as much as is possible, without being *too* gimmicky.

To get started, ask yourself:

  • Most people think/do X… I, however, think/do Y.
  • Most research in my field focuses on X, yet I’d like to pursue Y because…
  • What errors or regrets have taught you something important about yourself?
  • When does time disappear for you? What does this tell you about your passions, your values?
  • What ideas, books, courses, events have had a profound impact on you? How so?
  • To what extent do your current commitments reflect your most strongly held values?
  • When have you changed? Consider yourself before and after; what does this change mean?

Take a look at They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing for helpful and user-friendly advice on constructing academic argument.

2. Evaluating and Revising your Thesis

Use this opportunity to distinguish yourself from the other applicants. Sort through your preliminary ideas to identify the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Work on the Big Picture first

  • Don’t get too committed early on. Plan to experiment and try completely different versions of your essay. Don’t be afraid to toss out drafts that aren’t working.
  • Sharpen the ideas, winnowing down until you have one central claim to make, a central narrative story about yourself.
  • Work out the ideas and the content before you spend much time refining and polishing the writing.

Get Outside Readers

  • Have a friend read your draft and ask them to tell you what they think your main idea is. It’s also helpful to ask what they remember most clearly, or what they found to be your most interesting point. Is it what you intended? If not, revise.
  • Consult your department advisor or a faculty mentor and ask them to read for the substantive ideas. You want to know if your essay is both accurate and intellectually interesting.
  • Ask your readers to tell you what questions your essays raise, especially ones that you might not have considered.
  • Remember that each reader may have different, sometimes even conflicting, advice – your job is to sift through the advice to produce a coherent whole.

Revise until your essay is a coherent reflection of who you are and what you want to do.

3. Revising Paragraphs and Correctness

Once you’ve got the central idea or story nailed down, one that is interesting and compelling, it’s time to tackle your paragraphs and sentences.

Rules of Writing

  • These essays are writing samples; all the rules of good writing (clarity, coherence, correctness, conviction) apply. They are read as indications of clear and organized thinking and effective communication.
  • Be kind to your reader. Make key information easy to find by using clear topic sentences. Think of these as signposts to guide the reader effortlessly through your ideas.
  • Take a look at Revising Prose for helpful advice on sentence-level revision.

Formatting and Accuracy

  • Keep to word and character limits.
  • Refer back to the program website for any essay guidelines and advice, and be sure you have followed all the suggestions and recommendations.
  • Make sure all information is accurate and that you are prepared to discuss in some detail anything you mention.

4. Revising for Style/Tone

Essays (especially personal essays) are typically read quickly and often in bulk; yours should be a pleasure to read. Start with a hook that quickly takes the reader into the heart of your discussion.

Style and Formatting

  • Aim for economy, enthusiasm, and directness; eloquence is welcome, but not at the expense of substance or honesty.
  • Where appropriate, write for an intelligent, non-specialist audience. Make sure the terminology will be understandable to someone outside your field. In most cases, the tone should be neither too academic nor too casual. (Goldwater and NSF are notable exceptions.)
  • If you like, you can use formatting such as headers, bold, bullets, or underline to draw attention to important points or sections of longer essays, but don’t overdo it.

Revision strategies

  • Try reading your essay out loud – a well-written essay has a nice rhythm and flow to it.
  • Don't expect writing these to be easy – successful applicants usually spend one to three months or more writing and rewriting their essays. A dozen substantive revisions is not at all unusual.