About a week ago, I read Edward P. Jones' novel The Known World. In this post, I will share a couple tips I picked up from my reading.

College Application Essay Tip #1: Find a Contradiction

The back cover of my copy contains a single sentence:

"He was thirty-five years old and for every moment of those years he had been someone's slave, a white man's slave and then another white man's slave and now, for nearly ten years, the overseer slave for a black master."

And there we have the contradiction: a black slave-owner in antebellum Virginia. Why did this happen? We don't know yet. The novel tells us the story of that slave-owner, Henry Townsend.

If you're not sure where to start your essay, you might think about your inconsistencies. How do you resolve them? The first time my son hit my daughter, I swatted his hand in response and told him not to hit her.

But after a few more times, I began to ask myself how I could say "no hitting" while using hitting as a punishment. This was a contradiction. Not the most fascinating, but I offer it as an example of the type of personal inconsistency you might work into your essay.

College Application Essay Tip #2: Use Foreshadowing

To foreshadow is to hint without spoiling. Let's make sure we understand spoilers first. When you write an analytical essay, you distill your main point into a thesis sentence. Your thesis sentence is a spoiler. It tells the reader exactly what you will say and, in so doing, dissipates all suspense.

In the application essay context, the most common spoiler I see is, "Activity X taught me the importance of Value Y." Once I see this sentence at the beginning of an essay, I'm bored. So as we think about how to execute foreshadowing, let's remember that our goal is not to reveal, but rather to hint.

Here are three examples of hints from The Known World:

  • "The strange thing is it would be the second black person Henry Townsend bought - not the first, not Moses who became his overseer - who would trouble him after the purchase."
  • "He was standing less than ten feet from the spot where he would die one morning."
  • "It was that boy, along with his older brother and a slave boy named Teacher, who would burst into flames in front of the dry goods store."

These hints share a common word: would. When you use "would," you tell the reader something about "past you" that "past you" doesn't know yet. For example, you might write, "This was the first of two times I would ever see the ocean turn purple." "Past you" doesn't know that she will see the ocean turn purple only twice in her life; "past you" simply knows that she is watching the ocean turn purple. By projecting future knowledge into the past, we get foreshadowing.

Bringing It Together: Say What, Not Why

Contradictions and foreshadowing both create suspense in the same way: by saying what, not why. We hide the "why it matters" to draw our reader into the story.

Good luck writing!


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.