Want to knock ‘em flat with your application essay? Get specific!

Whether you’re applying to college, grad school, a scholarship, or some other type of academic program, there’s likely to be at least one dreaded essay. Wouldn’t you like to know a secret that will help your essay shine among all the rest? You can. It’s a principle that pro writers use on everything from novels to advertisements. In fact, it’s so important that, while no one concept can ever be considered the one key to good writing, this comes pretty close.

Get specific.

All those grand questions your essay prompt asks you about life and values and honesty and all that? They look intimidating at

Getting specific means focusing on the details.
Getting specific means focusing on the details.

first, but when you get specific, you’ll see they’re no big deal. Let’s say you were writing an application essay to a prompt about your commitment to change the world around you. Sounds tough, right?  Hey, you’re a high school or college student. You’re not Gandhi. So you might be tempted to write something very general like “I am committed to community service.” You can do better. Try “I volunteer at the park.” You can do even better. How about something like this: “Every Saturday my grandmother picked up litter at the local park, until the day her back would no longer let her stoop to gather the trash. For months afterward, as she sat propped in her chair, she would ask about the park. One day I drove past and saw empty bottles and junk strewn around the picnic tables. The very next morning, I filled out a volunteer application, and I’ve been taking Granny’s place ever since.”

Getting specific doesn’t just apply to your personality traits or past accomplishments. Get specific about future plans too. What specifically will you do to enact your goals? What steps will you take?

You may also be asked to write about a historical figure. Get specific about that person’s life. What specifically did they do? Why do you feel it is so important?

Getting specific means backing up what you say, but it can also mean telling a story. Bookending essays with story elements is a very effective technique. You might begin an essay with the grandmother story above, then in the conclusion, refer back to the grandmother again.

Why does getting specific work? It’s convincing. Think about the last persuasive article you read or the last persuasive speech you heard. It probably wasn’t the writer/speaker saying “X is the best choice for this country” that made up your mind. No, it was probably the details that persuaded you, the evidence cited, the stories told. You want to do the same in your essays. Examples, details, stories. They prove points and they make the writer feel human, connected to the reader. Put those in your essay, and you’re on your way to a knockout application.

Photo Credit: Oliver Bacquet, Creative Commons

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