College Essay Tips from Aaron Burr

While we’re talking, let me offer you some free advice
Talk less


Smile more


Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for

You can’t be serious

You want to get ahead?


Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead

–(from “Aaron Burr, Sir” by Lin Manuel-Miranda)

The lyrics of this entire show have been looping in my head all summer, but I keep returning to this one as I sit down with incoming high school seniors to talk about the college essay. Here’s why:

Talk Less. Remember that old adage, show don’t tell? Same idea here: You can write that someone (or you) is happy or scared or frustrated or proud, but isn’t it more affective to describe the way a person’s eyes change when they smile, or how your body feels as you walk on to a stage or a field or in front of a podium? As Chekhov says, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Smile more: Students often shy away from humorous topics, but often these essays entertain and win over readers more. Certainly, if you have a heavy topic on which you have much to say, you should try to write it, but occasionally the deep dark family drama will not comfortably translate to the limited word count required. Surprisingly, it ends up being the unexceptional moments in life that often make the more intriguing essay topics: how you wear your hair, the toppings you choose to put on your pizza, the sound your guitar makes as you’re learning to play. Of course you’ll end up writing about much more (your identity, your culture, your history) as you describe these seemingly ordinary moments, and that’s what can make your essay stand out, your ability to find deeper meaning in something unexpected (this is how metaphors are born, and these are the secret ingredient of strong personal essays).

Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for. Do you want to spend your 600 words explaining how much you believe in affirmative action or how you’re against animal cruelty or gender discrimination? It’s not impossible, but it’s challenging. Better still, paint a picture of a moment in time in which you understood something about the world. But remember, it’s a scene you’re describing: when you understood how your house had a certain smell after being away for an extended period of time, how that hamburger tasted differently after learning about a slaughterhouse, when you opened your local paper and noticed how the coverage of boys’ sports always lands on the first page or above the fold. Just examples, here, but begin to pay attention to what gets you really going this fall.

Fools who run their mouths off wind up dead. Nothing turns people off more than braggarts, and the college essay is not a time to simply list your accomplishments, even if they’re thinly veiled in a litany of all of the service trips you’ve attended, soup kitchens you’ve visited, or underserved school children you’ve tutored. Of course, if you had a specific experience in one of these settings, by all means, write about it, but a general overview of your volunteer work does not a good essay make. Again, dig deep here: describe the facial expressions or body language of a person you had a one-of-a-kind experience with: the way a senior citizen’s voice language or voice changed when they spoke about a pivotal moment in their past; a little girl doing a cartwheel with straight legs for the first time, the sound that food makes as it settles into a bowl or a plate of a person who is hungry. Again, just ideas, but let these lead you towards moments of your own.

While we’re talking, let me offer you (one more piece of) some free advice: Don’t be discouraged if (when) this essay takes multiple drafts, weeks, eyes. In fact, in Bret Stephens’s recent New York Times article, “Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers,” he cautions: “If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong.” This isn’t easy, and it might be the first time many seniors have attempted to do this type of writing. You have limited space, big expectations, and a lot of voices. Don’t shirk people (parents, teachers) who offer to help or give you feedback. There will come a time, soon, when no one will offer to help or even, for some lucky ones, pay for someone else to help you. On the flip slide, don’t be discouraged if you don’t have any help. You can do this. You don’t need big words; in fact, big words are distracting in a personal essay. Listen to the stories you tell other people; what are the thoughts you have in the shower, that distraction-free time so ripe for creative thinking? Record yourself telling a story, then transcribe it, edit it, and read it aloud.

And, if you know someone who could really use some help but can’t afford it, please send them along to me. I’m happy to help.




A Short List of (Unrelated) Thoughts

  1. The other night I was reading a book, and I was almost to the end, when my five-year-old son asked, “When you’re done with that book, are you going to put it up there?” and he pointed to our built-in bookshelves. This made me think about reading and books and how he views reading at this point – is it merely a group of items gathered and displayed on shelves? Is he possibly on to something? Would I be better off having, say, ten or so books up there that I just keep rereading over the years? As it stands now, I often have trouble recalling certain plots, some characters. Sure, the strong ones will always remain, but then – I want to reread them.
  2. To do: read through novel draft and edit out all cliches.
  3. As I enter my third year of getting weekly allergy shots (it’s not supposed to be that frequent at this  point, but I consistently miss so many weeks that they have to keep bumping my dosage down), I think about how similarities between building immunities against my allergies and writing my first novel. I’m playing the long-game in both scenarios, and if I think about how long it’s going to take, sometimes I want to quit. But I’m two years into the shots already, and over 200 pages into my first draft, so then those years and pages would be a huge waste of time, wouldn’t they?
  4. I like living in a place where you hear one person say to another, “I heard you were back, but I haven’t seen you around.”
  5. As of now, my daughter does not like to read. She has asked me to stop talking about books. Did I do this? When did I fall in love with reading? No one else in my family read like I did. I know for certain that no one ever pushed it on me. Does it matter? Didn’t Gibran say in The Prophet something like: “Children come through you not from you”, so then why should I expect her to come out of the womb loving books as I do?
  6. This morning I tried to read Joan Didion’s three-and-a-half page essay “On Self-Respect” for nearly two hours, despite being continually interrupted by my various family members: “Mom.” “Mom.” “Liz.” “Mom.” “Liz.” By the time I reached the last paragraph, I had no idea what Didion was trying to say, and their calls for me had fallen into such a rhythm that I felt like I could sing along to the chorus by the end.
  7. When my daughter was six-years old: “Honey, you have to do your homework,” I call in to the playroom. “Not yet. I’m still teaching my lesson,” she answers without looking up. The dolls are lined up neatly in a row. She has taken attendance, answered a few questions, and is now teaching her students about the use of an ellipsis in stories. You know: dot, dot, dot. To build suspense, in her words. It’s a very busy imaginary world she’s living in, and her real homework sheet sits there untouched. But I don’t judge. Though I know I’m the parent, I’m busy thinking about an essay I want to write about how her view of childhood differs from my own, in more of a global way. You know – the way we are on our phones and computers way more than our parents ever were? I’m still hashing out my thesis, and actually I probably won’t figure out what I’m writing until I start writing it, but the point is that I’ve recently realized that both my daughter and I lead very busy imaginary lives. I also constantly avoid my “homework” – that to-do list that feels so insignificant, but if those things don’t get done the big things start to fall apart.
  8. Because when you turn this number on its side, it stands for infinity, and has always been my favorite number.

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This Little Piggy

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 9.04.23 AM

A  few months ago I got up early (for me) – around 5:30 a.m. I’m definitely not a morning person. But I’ve heard and read so much about writers who have children getting all of their writing hours in before the kids are even awake. And so I thought I’d give it a try. I crept down the stairs, made the coffee, opened that screen, and was surprised by how easy it was to get going. I wrote a few solid pages before I heard the doors begin to creak open upstairs. I turned off the computer, already all caffeined-up and felt like I had it all.

And then later on that day, I reread what I had written during my early session and realized that I had completely messed up the timelines in my novel. The story I’m writing takes place during three different time periods. Basically, I had a character from the present day timeline calling to talk to her husband about something that she worried happened to a character from the middle timeline (the eighties). That was all I needed to convince myself that indeed I am really not a morning person. I am just not productive during those early hours. I’m not meant to drag myself out of bed that early to work on something creative. [Read more…]