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Comma Chameleon: Application Essays Revisited

Posted by Rebecca on 15 October 2008

Last week we were asked to bring a sample of our writing in preparation for a workshop titled “Writing with Impact”.  While I would like to think that I’m a decent writer, the truth is that I'm likely to get the most impact if I bundle up all my drafts and hurl the stack at someone.  I'll take all the help I can get.

My London Business School application essays were the easiest examples to find, so I opened up v11 (the final version) and selected an essay.  But if the purpose of this workshop was to examine our true writing skills, surely I wasn’t going to learn much about my writing from a sample that had been so carefully edited and agonized over.  I wondered if v1 wasn’t a better reflection of my true craft, so I opened up the dusty file – created exactly a year ago today. 

Oh the horrors!  The first essay was littered with run-on sentences, meaningless adjectives and terrible passive tenses.  My efforts to disguise real client examples were so good that even I didn’t know who or what I was talking about. I had stop after reading halfway through for fear of falling asleep. It’s not as though I didn’t make a genuine effort on this first draft. I spent countless hours at my favorite coffee shop (The Grove on Fillmore) carefully crafting my responses to “in what role do you see yourself immediately after graduation?” and the like. 

Fortunately I had lined up two readers to help mitigate these fatal flaws: my mother, a language arts teacher, and Sarah, a friend who is a talented writer with experience editing MBA applications. 

My mother had the first crack at reading my essays.   She was kind but firm with her criticism: “Were you ever taught any grammar at all?  You have sentences that last entire paragraphs.  And by the way - commas serve a purpose.  You can’t just sprinkle them on for decoration.”  Interesting and duly noted. 

Sarah’s feedback was constructive and devastating.  Application essays can turn into an intensely personal manifesto, particularly after you have spent so many hours on them.  To hear her say that my draft was “middle of the pack” in terms of quality made my heart sink even though I knew she was right.  However, she gave me two great suggestions that I want to pass on to this year’s applicants:

1.       Show, don’t tell.  Or, as Mark Twain said, "Don't say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream!" If you say you're "different" or "interesting", that word alone proves nothing. In fact, it seems to disprove your point purely by being boring and typical. Illustrate with a story or example instead.

2.       Be memorable. Imagine that the admission essay reader is seven hours into an admissions-essay-reading day. You are application #112 and frankly, #1 through #111 were mind-numbingly boring and she is waiting desperately to go to dinner but just has to finish your application before she can go home. You want to be memorable and worth her time.

This advice made a lot of sense to me, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to incorporate. In fact it took me 10 more drafts to get a version I was comfortable with.  So other lessons from this experience are to give yourself plenty of time to complete your application and find readers who will give you honest and constructive feedback.  And be careful where you put commas. Good luck!

Comments

Hello,
I am applying for 2011 course and am in a process of writing essays.
Yours tips at this points are very helpful. I am not a good writer hence am paranoid about essays. Hence my question to you is that do I need to have exceptional english or one of those high class english to really pass through ?

Currently I am concentrating on conveying my thoughts in a simple but meaningful fashion with live example of my experiences. Is this enough ?

Is there a way to review past few successful essays and compare my standard ?

Thanks,
Rupal Pandya.

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