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.




Big Book; little book

‘Tis the season for high school seniors to write their college essays and I am lucky enough to have one living right next door to me. Much to his chagrin, his mom found out I was an English teacher and tapped me to help him with his essay. I have been way more excited about this than he is. He reluctantly ended up writing about hockey – (write what you know!) and his brother, and their relationship with hockey. I won’t go into all of the details, but something funny happened when we had to trim the essay down from 650 words to 500 for one of the school’s requirements. What was most interesting about this challenge is that the essay still stood on its own after the cuts and rearrangements. In fact, as you might have guessed, it was a lot better. Rather than “tell” us that he didn’t know what to say to his brother after they lost the state championships his senior year, he “showed” us simply by writing that he walked over to him in the locker room and sat next to him and stayed silent while they grieved together. Gone were the extra “and then I learned…” and the “this made me realize…” type phrasing. When you only have 500 words, every word counts! And after you think you may be done editing, you have to go back through the essay again – maybe two or three more times, to see what else you have to cut. This is called economy of language.


So this was all in the back of my mind as I read my son Are You My Mother? For some reason, we ended up with two versions of this book: the long, unabridged taller version, and the smaller, abridged board book version. One for our older daughter, and one for her younger brother. But, my daughter never asks to read this book. I tried to once a year or so ago, and she had no interest. I remember loving this book when I was younger. My son, on the other hand, asks for it every night. It’s heavy in our rotation. In this shorter version, the story – just like the college essay  I was working on – has to remain the same. But all of the extra stuff can go.

In the “big-girl” longer version – let’s call it, baby bird is born and his mother flies away to find him some food to eat. Baby bird wakes up and looks for her – he looks up, he looks down and he can’t find her. He decides he will go look for her. In the board book version, baby bird wakes up and decides to go look for his mother.

In the big-girl version, the author tells us, “He did not know what his mother looked like. He went right by her. He did not see her.” Interestingly, this part is entirely left out of the younger version. I can see why they’d cut this part, but it does kind of change things, right? Next, the baby bird begins to approach different animals to see if they are his mother. In both versions, he asks each animal: “Are you my mother?” and the animal either stares back and says nothing or says: “No.” In the longer version, after each animal, the author includes a short transition: “The kitten was not his mother, so he went on.” It’s interesting, but you realize when this refrain is cut from the short book, that it is totally unnecessary. As with most of the cut material, you don’t even know it’s missing.

For the second half of the story, the editors become more ruthless with their cutting. In the longer version, the baby bird calls out to a boat and a big plane – both are which cut for the shorter version. In the long version, the Snort picks up the bird and there’s a whole extra section about the baby bird not knowing where he’s going or what the Snort is doing with him. In the short version, the Snort picks up the baby bird and puts him back in his nest. In both versions, the mother comes back and baby bird says, “Yes, I know who you are,” he goes on to say, you’re not a kitten, a hen, a dog, a cow, a boat or a Snort, your are a bird, and you are my mother.” So interesting, I would think that the shorter version would cut that long final build up to the baby bird’s discovery, but they didn’t. And, in fact, when my daughter pretended to read this short version to my son before school one morning – at least she tried to read it – she left out all of the extra build up and my son noticed. It was a part of the ending for him, and the story was not the same without it.

All of this is to say, that while I strongly believe in editing down and whittling down prose, it is the choices we make when we are making these cuts that matter most. What may seem extraneous to your mind could be in fact singular to a child’s mind. We don’t know for sure which cuts are important and that’s why this whole thing is an ongoing learning experience.