Free advice! Writing application essays

August 28, 2012

By hammersmith

We say this over and over again for a reason: The essays on the Flinn Scholarship application are well worth every second you spend on them.

There’s nowhere else in the application that you can do more to show reviewers who you really are. And believe me–the selection committee is not going to choose a Flinn Scholar designate whose personality and intellect remain opaque to them.

What’s the formula for writing a perfect essay? I can’t tell you, because there’s no such formula. There’s no most appropriate structure, no ideal tone, no preferred focus. Unlike some of your assignments at school, you won’t be able to earn a top score if you cover all the points I’m expecting you to cover with minimal spelling errors. We like accurate spelling, but we’re not expecting that you cover any particular points.

What are we looking for, then?



A unique perspective.

A memorable voice.

A story so compelling that reviewers will say, “We have to meet this student.”

All in 200 words? Sure. You can do it. Write a couple of drafts of each of your essays, without worrying about the length. If you have 400 or 500 words, you’re in a wonderful position–you get to trim out the throat-clearing introduction, the irrelevant vignettes, the least-resonant lines. What will be left, I hope, is a great story. Depending on the essay prompt, it may be a story about you, or a story about something in the world that matters to you.

Want more help?

There was a great blog post in the Times this morning that you should read. It’s “The Yellow Test,” by Lee Gutkind, who lovers of good writing know as one of our foremost practitioners of narrative nonfiction. His post offers excellent advice about scenemaking in nonfiction writing. This is just what you want to be doing in your application essays.

From Gutkind’s post:

Notice — and this is critical — that something happens, no matter how trivial, in each scene excerpted here. The beginning engages a reader, makes a promise. The end of the scene fulfills the promise and makes the audience want to know what will happen next, moving the action forward, ideally to another scene, another block of yellow, until the whole story is told and your point is established.

Do you know how much I’m looking forward to reading your essays? I’m really, really looking forward to it.

(On a side note: You’ll notice that Gutkind is right under your nose–teaching at Arizona State University. And one of the stories he excerpts is about the extraordinary clinical oncologist Daniel Von Hoff, previously director of the University of Arizona Cancer Center and now physician-in-chief at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix. Like we always say, Arizona’s universities possess some of the most amazing faculty talent in the world.)