Application Essay Tips from Jack Finney

I’m staging an intervention. Cut back on the adjectives before they ruin you. If you remember just one of today’s application essay tips, remember that one. In a Ladies Home Journal article from 1948, science fiction writer Jack Finney mocks adjectives. Let’s see what other application essay tips we can glean from his piece entitled Cousin Len’s Wonderful Adjective Cellar.

6 Application Essay Tips from an “Adjective Cellar” (whatever that is)

According to Wikipedia, before we had salt shakers, we had salt cellars: glass or silver vessels for holding salt. An adjective cellar is, well…I’ll let Mr. Finney explain. What application essay tips can we learn from Finney’s adjective cellar? Here are six to consider:

Application Essay Tips | Tip #1: Use fewer adjectives.

You have a word limit, so you have to be concise. Especially if your essay’s running long, consider stripping out your adjectives. Focus on using the verbs to convey your meaning (just as John Kennedy Toole does in the opening lines of A Confederacy of Dunces). If you want to learn more about how to use verbs, note each verb Finney uses, and ponder the effect each verb creates.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #2: Pair “odd couple” words to make a comparison.

I don’t usually associate “chihuahua” with “ferocity.” That’s why I consider these two words an odd couple. But to describe someone as mild-mannered, I might pair these odd couple words as follows: “He has the ferocity of a chihuahua.” By pairing odd couple words to introduce an image, I make my comparison more vivid than saying, "He is mild-mannered." Finney is pairing odd couple words in a comparison when he writes that the adjective cellar had “the grace of line of a fire hydrant.” This approach is better than just saying the adjective cellar was ugly.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #3: “Like” it!

I got tired of telling you to use a simile. Use the word like, and follow it with an image. Finney employs this technique at least five times in a very short article: 1. “…like a magnet…” 2. “…like particle of lint into a vacuum cleaner.” 3. “…like a cloud of almost invisible confetti.” 4. “…like miniature alphabet-soup letters, strung together and made of the thinnest cellophane.” 5. “…like snowflakes.” Using “like” is not quantum physics, though it is formulaic: Like + image = something an admission officer might actually enjoy reading.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #4: Consider irony.

Finney’s use of irony – in this case, sarcasm – adds humor. I’m not saying you should be sarcastic in a way that shows you’re cynical or angst-ridden (to understand the importance of optimism, see my thoughts on Oscar Hammerstein’s article). But if you can be ironic in a self-deprecating way, or in a way that shows your unique perspective, that’s great.

How does Finney use irony? In describing the effects of releasing a cloud of adjectives over the Senate, he remarks, “Something must have gone wrong this time, though, for things didn't sound one bit different.” His comment is ironic because nothing has gone wrong; senators sound so pompous already that even a release of adjectives cannot make them sound more so. Also, Finney concludes by implying that the piece is a telegram and that he used the adjective cellar to compose it, “Which is why it’s so short, of course.” This closing sentence is ironic because, of course, Finney’s piece is ridiculously long for a telegram.

Perhaps you'll find a way to use irony in your essay either to poke fun at yourself or provide insight into one of your beliefs or activities. This approach is not for everyone, so if it doesn't suit you, move on.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #5: Ask “What if?”

Finney’s whole piece is a whimsical response to the question, “What would happen if I had a magical device that collected adjectives?” He even goes so far as to imagine the adjectives’ colors: “You can't see them at all unless the light is just right, and most of them are colorless. Some of them are delicate pastels, though. “Very”, for example, is a pale pink; “lush” is green, of course; and “indubitable” is a dirty gray.” This absurd description is absurdly funny.

Of course, your college application essay is not a creative writing exercise, so I’m not suggesting you submit a creative writing sample. But as I explain in my application essay ebook, the first step to writing the application essay is to figure out who you are. Finney is someone who hates the over-use of adjectives. He could have written, "I'm someone who hates the over-use of adjectives." That statement would be true, but it would bore us instantly. So he conveys his point of view by answering a whimsical "What if?" question.

We all have our "What if?" questions. Sometimes, they're good clues into how we're different from the people around us. When you find a "What if?" question you know few other people ask, you're close to discovering what makes you different. If you're still trying to pin down who you are so you can figure out a good topic, consider reflecting on what your "What if?" questions say about you.

Application Essay Tips | Tip #6: Watch your tone.

Finney's piece is pure nonsense. There's no such thing as an adjective cellar. Yet he describes it in an objective, clinical tone, as if it's a real phenomenon, even commenting on the colors of various adjectives and relaying the effects of adjectives that jump into Mrs. Gorman's conversation. Using a serious tone to describe a nonsensical topic makes the piece funny.

Figuring out tone is challenging because tone results from the cumulative effect of all the sentences you write. But I'm not mentioning tone to stress you out. The opposite, actually. The whole purpose of your application essay is to reveal your personality. You should use whatever tone accomplishes that goal. Maybe it will be a serious tone. Maybe funny. Or maybe mostly serious. Whatever it ends up being, never assume that a serious tone is the "right" tone for an application essay. The right tone is the one that reveals - not conceals - your unique personality. If writing in a 100% serious makes you sound like someone else, you have to reconsider your approach.

Anyway, that's all I got from the adjective cellar. I hope you enjoy the article as much as I did. If you liked today's application essay tips, please share them with your friends. Thank you!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.