When I was a high school AP Biology student, my teacher used to walk by my desk during multiple choice exams and whisper, “You didn’t really mean to circle B there, did you? Keep it simple.” He knew I was an overthinker. Instead of circling the simplest and most obvious answer—which I often knew to be the right one—I would overthink the question, until I’d talked myself in to a trick wrong answer.
Now an educator myself and a professional writer, I still tend to overthink, and also to overwrite. When this happens, I remember my Biology teacher’s advice. I think, what do I know to be true in this situation, once I eliminate all the analysis? What do I really want to say in this sentence, or in this essay, and what is the most clear and concise way to get that idea across? Keeping it simple helps me, and my students, to clarify our thoughts and our writing.
Whether you are writing a personal essay for school or publication, or you’re writing a personal statement for college or graduate school admission, my best advice to you is to keep it clear and concise. But what does that look like in practice?
Let’s take an example of introductory sentences for a medical school personal statement:
When I think about why I want to be a doctor, I can think of many reasons. There are lots of things that have led me to realize that I have always wanted to enter the medical field and become a physician.
What do we know from these two sentences? That the person has always wanted to be a doctor. But how many words did it take for the writer to get that point across? Too many. The first and second sentences are essentially saying the same thing, and can easily be condensed to, There are many reasons that I have always wanted to enter the medical field and become a physician. But even that sentence can be tightened, too. If the writer wants to become a physician, then they want to enter the medical field, so that clause can be deleted. Now we’ve cut two wordy sentences down to, There are many reasons I have always wanted to be a doctor.
This new statement is clear and concise, but it doesn’t yet show us what the many reasons are. Instead of telling us that there are many reasons, the writer can simply show them. For example, they might say, Wrestling with a chronic illness, volunteering at a hospital, and conducting research in a lab have all helped me to identify the reasons I want to become a doctor. Here we have specific examples of experiences that have led the writer to the decision to apply to medical school. The sentence is leading us to a thesis that will presumably identify the reasons this person wants to become a doctor. That thesis can then lead to an essay that elaborates on these three specific experiences and the lessons learned from them.
As you can see from this example, simplifying doesn’t mean dumbing down. It means getting to the heart of your essay in a specific yet clear and concise way. You want your reader to get to the heart of you—to get to know you through your words, to pull meaning from your experiences. To do that, here are some tips to keep in mind:
To fill a page and try to sound good, writers often use lots of words that actually aren’t saying much at all. Are you fluffing your sentence up with big words but not giving specific examples that tell us about you? What details can you include that illustrate your thesis? That differentiates you from another writer or candidate? Use simple, clear language to show complex thoughts.
Look for your thesis
A thesis is a clear statement that outlines the main point of your essay. It should conclude your introductory paragraph, but is often hiding somewhere else in the essay. I have found thesis statements everywhere from the middle of the fourth paragraph to the middle of the conclusion. If the thesis is clearly stated at the end of the introduction, you have room to build up to it with a strong hook (stay tuned for another blog post about this!).
Brainstorm before you write
Ask yourself, what is the main point I want to get across in this essay? What details do I need to include to illustrate that point? Once you start writing, go through each sentence and ask yourself, am I stating this in the most clear, direct way possible?
Avoid flowery language
Readers can tell when you’ve used the thesaurus. You want your voice to sound authentic. It’s more important to state your ideas clearly than it is to cloud them in big words. Use imagery and sensory details, of course. But use them naturally. Simply.
Tighten, tighten, tighten!
As Brad Pitt’s Ocean’s 11 character Rusty says, “Don’t use seven words when four will do.” Go through every sentence with a fine-toothed comb. Can you make your verbs more active? Can you combine or condense sentences? Where can you cut words? Now where can you cut some more?
When you have a character max for an essay, every word counts. Use them judiciously!