This is a short film of David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. At least watch the first 30 seconds.

Watching this film made me wonder, "Wait, why aren't more speeches or essays made into films?" Most essays don't have enough images - enough things. Without things, you have no images. Without images, you have no film.

If students aren't writing essays about things, then what are they writing about? They're writing about thoughts. Thoughts might be adjectives (frightening, grateful, overwhelmed!) or concepts (leadership, justice, respect!). Whatever the case, these abstract thoughts share a common flaw: invisibility. I have no idea what a thought looks like.

Yes, I know, your essay must have some thoughts. It just can't be only thoughts. Tether your thoughts with things. Think of your essay as a kite. The sail is your profound thoughts about your topic. The line is the things that are the images for your topic.

If you've ever flown a kite, you know you need tension between sail and line to fly it where you want it to go. And to write an essay that stands out, you need to explore the interplay between thoughts and things. Writing an essay with all thoughts and no things is like cutting the line to your kite, setting it adrift on the wind. When you write about both thoughts and things, however, you create images that distinguish you from your fellow applicants who have written invisible thought essays.

By all means, write your deep thoughts. But don't forget your things!


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.