On reading application essays

One way or another, this time of year always finds me reading application essays. For the first part of my career, I read finished essays submitted with student applications, but over the last dozen years or so, I’ve read essays as works in progress, as students prepare them for submission. No matter which side of the desk I’ve been on, I have enjoyed reading essays – it’s always interesting to see what is on students’ minds, and to see how they interpret and respond to the prompts they are given. The quality of the writing varies, of course. Many application essays fall in the broad middle section of a normal distribution. They are just fine – the essays are sincere and serviceable responses to the given prompt.

The essays at either tail of the distribution are more interesting, though – for good or for ill. The few outstanding essays that come along are a pleasant surprise. I have saved some of these original and beautifully crafted gems over the years, and I sometimes wonder what has become of their authors.

The essays at the “uh-oh” tail of the distribution are a challenge to read and understand. These essays have no discernible relationship to a prompt, they lack cohesion, and at worst can seem like written equivalents of a Jackson Pollock painting. “Word salad,” a colleague of mine once called these essays. Thankfully, these are few and far between.

When disaster strikes, though, I wish I could throw the hapless writer a copy of Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.”

I am a huge fan of “The Elements of Style,” which Strunk wrote in the early part of the twentieth century, for use in classes he taught at Cornell. E.B. White was one of Strunk’s students, and in the 1950’s, White revised and adapted the book. It has been reissued many times since then. (The 2005 edition, with illustrations by Maira Kalman, is especially wonderful. A photo of page 104 from the 2005 edition is below.)

Kalman illustration, "An Approach to Style," point six


I particularly commend two of Strunk’s “Elementary Principles of Composition” to student writers wondering how they can improve their essays.

Rule 14: Use the active voice
Rule 17: Omit needless words

Re: Rule 14 — The passive voice: why it is objected to by me.
* It’s tiring to read.
* It dulls the connection between writer and subject, and makes the essay less vivid.

Re: Rule 17 —  Why, as in the common parlance, “less is more,” and why it often, though perhaps not always, but more than sometimes, makes sense to deploy the tactic of lexical brevity when one is writing, even though one may not be remotely close to exhausting the word limit provided to one by the directions contained in the applications of the colleges to which one is applying, or exhausted one’s personal tolerance for comma usage.

Strunk makes a stronger and more objective case for adopting these principles, however, and though I humbly offer my own perspective, I encourage those unfamiliar with it to read “The Elements of Style.” White’s preface and introductory essay for the book are worth a look, even if you find it hard to imagine that reading about “the principal requirements of plain English style” could be interesting, let alone fun.

What I love most about “The Elements of Style” is the way it fervently encourages its audience toward the production of clear and precise prose. This is a very worthy goal, and one close to Strunk’s heart. White explained it thus in his introduction: “Will [Strunk] felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get the reader up on dry ground, or at least to throw a rope.”   (2005 edition, p. xvi and xvii)

Amen to that!

As “fast away the old year passes,” I offer best wishes to readers and writers, and in the spirit of the season I say,

May your days be merry and bright; may all essayists refer to Strunk and White.