A Guest Post by Olivia Lindquist Bowen
Our Favorite College Application Essay Inspiration Sources
1. Every Last One (chapter 1), by Anna Quindlen
What to look for: How to use simple, concrete details to quickly build a world the reader can envision. By the end of the first paragraph, we have experienced the narrator’s morning, what makes it rich and what she longs for. The specificity caters to our senses, and the tangible objects lay a foundation for abstract revelations.
2. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Introduction), by Oliver Sacks
What to look for: A meaningful explanation of the importance of narrative—and where to look for it. Also note Sacks’s use of vocabulary. Not because he uses “big words” (though he does), but because each word he chooses is the best word to do that work. He doesn’t search the thesaurus for impressive-sounding language; he writes.
3. A Moveable Feast (chapter 1), by Ernest Hemingway
What to look for: The story inside the story. (When do we meet his wife? When do we meet the girl at the café? How much can we learn from this simple placement?) “Insider” language. (Hemingway uses simple language, but also the language of Parisian café culture; we believe he’s a part of that group.) Expert use of similes. (How much information we gather just by reading that the girl has “a face as fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow’s wing and cut diagonally across her cheek.”) If you want to use similes and metaphors in your writing, make sure they do as much work as Hemingway’s.
4. Mrs. Sen’s, by Jhumpa Lahiri (from Interpreter of Maladies)
What to look for: How to reveal characters through objects. Entire communities are brought to life through the use of specific objects, such as the title character’s beloved curved knife. Lahiri is also a master of using all the senses to draw the reader into the scene. We can taste and smell the food Mrs. Sen prepares, appreciate the pop of color in her vermilion-striped scalp, and feel the cardboard-thin slippers under our feet.
5. On Becoming a Writer, by Russell Baker
What to look for: An encouraging story about how a boy who thought grammar was boring and classics were impenetrable found his start as a writer. Note Baker’s expert use of the word “prim” to describe his English teacher, Mr. Fleagle, and try to understand why Baker’s spaghetti essay is “don’t you see—it’s of the very essence of the essay, don’t you see.”
6. On Self Respect, by Joan Didion (from Slouching Towards Bethlehem)
What to look for: A primer on how to take an abstract concept and personalize it, bring it to life, and place it in its historical context. Didion weaves together stories about crying with a paper bag over head, Napoleon’s experience at Waterloo, and what it was like to be a twelve-year-old pioneer in 1846—all while keeping her essay rich with integrity and individuality.
7. On Writing Well (memoir chapter), by William Zinsser
What to look for: Techniques that are useful for writing memoirs, which just happen to be many of the same techniques that are useful for writing college application essays. Zinsser also quotes at length some particularly noteworthy memoir excerpts; these would be a great place to go for further reading.
8. Problems, by John Updike (from The Early Stories 1953 – 1975)
What to look for: An alternative to the standard story format. Most people can tell a story in the boring five-paragraph essay format. Updike tells the story of a marriage using the structure of a math problem, and it is a wonderful reflection of its content. College application essays can take just about any form you want: play with it.
Applying to college will certainly have its stressful moments, but it should also have many points of excitement, joy, and clarity. I hope these writers help you experience an abundance of the latter and very little of the former.
Olivia Lindquist Bowen is the Founder and Director of Education for the Royston Writing Institute. She founded RWI to help students find and express their most compelling stories in their college application essays. RWI mentors focus on the mechanics of strong writing in order to help students thrive once they arrive at university. You can follow Olivia on Twitter, ask questions on Formspring, and become a fan on Facebook. Visit her website, http://roystonwriting.com/