When I think about admission officers reading essays, I imagine them hearing something like that marklar scene. Comfort zone. The value of _____. And all the other marklar phrases that make readers shrug.
What You See
One of the things I hear on the soccer field is "What you see!" This phrase is supposed to mean that I have time to look around. It's redundant, I think, since any decent player should already be looking around. But "What you see!" is actually great writing advice. It forces you to write about observations, and observations are what help your essay sound less marklar.
Here's what I asked myself last week: Why not ask students to describe what they observe? No commentary. Just what they see, hear, hear, touch, taste, or smell. I tried it out:
"I am sitting at a desk stained-reddish brown. The edges and corners show the bare wood beneath. The desk has eight drawers. Each drawer handle looks like two pawns from a chess board connected with a pencil-thick rod. On top of the desk is my Toshiba laptop. A Skype sticker blocks the camera lens. A blue ethernet cable snakes out of the right side of my laptop and disappears over the edge. So does a black power cord, which has curled itself into a loop like a heart. I am streaming Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #2 through Classical KUSC. To the left of my laptop, my cell phone sits on top of an unopened, shrink-wrapped package of updates to a landlord tenant practice guide. The top page is pink. In front of the package is a small, yellow legal pad. Some notes are scrawled in pencil. Above me, the recessed lights shine down their white glow. Shadows from the leaves of the tree outside the window flicker across the floor. The window is open, but my office smells of fresh paint, not fresh air."
Try it for yourself. Spend 10 minutes typing everything you observe around you.
Today I Learned
Doing the "What you see" exercise taught me a few things:
- Observation is Hard. As I typed, I kept wanting to explain what the details meant. I had trouble sticking to what was in front of me.
- Observations Lead to Insight It's fairly common for students to tell m e, "I want to write about how experience X taught me insight Y." In other words, even before they write about experience X, they think they already know the insight Y. I now think this is wrong a fair amount of the time. How can I know what an experience means if I haven't even described it yet? If, before I did the exercise, you had asked me what my desk reveals about me, I would just say it shows I don't care if my desk is messy. But the details I observed might show something more. Take the fact that though I write notes on a small legal pad, I haven't opened the updates to my Landlord Tenant guide. That suggests some ambivalence about my identity as an attorney. Or take the fact that the Skype sticker covers my camera lens whenever I'm not actually using the camera. That suggests some anxiety about the relationship between technology and privacy. But neither of these ideas occurred to me when I first glanced at my desk. I had to write about them to discover them.
- Insights Can Be Spoilers. When you go to a movie, the first scene doesn't explain what the whole movie means. Otherwise, why would anyone watch? We like observing and anticipating. Your reader likes that, too. But when you put your big insight about your experience at the beginning of your essay, you spoil the reader's fun by giving give away the ending. So don't start with your main insight. Save it for the end of the paragraph or the end of the essay.
Why Writing This Way Connects
When you write "what you see," you invite the reader to see exactly what you saw. It's like Google glass, except not in a creepy way. When you bombard your reader with generalities, the reader can deflect them and remain untouched. But when your reader sees through your eyes, she starts to identify with you, and maybe even like you. That's writing that connects, and that's what you want.
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.