Mark Twain & the Essay

For admission officers fall is travel season and winter is reading season. At Whitman two officers read each application, scrolling through 30-pages on laptops and writing comments on the electronic “vote sheet”. We review apps “holistically”, meaning that we take into account a student’s transcript (curriculum and grades), writings, passions and activities, letters of recommendation and—lastly—test scores.

My favorite part of the application is the Common Application Personal Essay, which gives a student multiple subject options.  An excellent essay makes my day and distinguishes the student from other applicants. I have a file of “essay keepers”, writings that knocked my socks off and that I keep to re-read when times slow down.

Memorable essays are always well-written and can be on any topic. The best ones tell me who the student is, what makes them tick, what they’re passionate about, how they interact with peers, parents and pariahs. Some are humorous (but it takes a talented writer to nail humor), some take a surprising turn, some are heart-felt, some make me shed a tear (but don’t try to make me cry!). Don’t try to impress, just be honest. Don’t tell me what you do unless it explains who you are. Don’t use big words when little words better convey what you have to say. Conciseness trumps verbosity. When in doubt follow Mark Twain’s advice:

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English….don’t let fluff and flowers creep in. [Adjectives] weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective, a diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” (Letter to D.W. Bowser, March 20, 1880)

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