I have a confession to make: I’m really proud of this question—“What’s your essay’s emotional range?”
Writing is more art than science. This may be especially true of a genre like the personal essay. Hence, it can be a real challenge to pin down what makes one essay “work” and another fall flat.
When it comes to the college essay, the worst thing you can do is be boring.
An oft-repeated bit of college essay advice is to imagine your audience: an exhausted, overworked, underpaid admissions officer threatened by delicately balanced mountains of student files on his desk, who is forced to make up-or-down decisions about students within minutes.
This poor person has read many hundreds of college essays, most of them generic, formulaic, clichéd—in a word, boring.
Boring essays often have a narrow emotional range
What makes a boring essay’s boring? I’m going to suggest what I not-so-humbly believe is an original, useful, and even somewhat clever answer: a narrow emotional range.
Take for example a classic college essay cliché: the really cool trip (the “RCT”).
In the RCT essay, the writer recounts a super-duper ultra-amazing travel experience, in which she discovered something about culture, or the world, or herself, or whatever.
To be clear, it’s possible to write an exceptional essay about travel (or any topic), but with certain topics it’s especially easy to fall down a rabbit hole into boring-land.
In the generic—and therefore boring—version of the RCT, there’s a distinctly narrow emotional range. From start to finish, the essay exudes a naïve sense of awe. (“Wow, isn’t this amazing! I’m learning so much! I had no idea that cultures were so different, or whatever. And I want to go to college so I can continue broadening my horizons and stuff.”)
A suggestion: embrace conflicting emotions and ideas
Life is complex, both mentally and emotionally. One might even venture to say that anything that truly matters is something we may have conflicting feelings and thoughts about.
Skillfully embracing complexity (even conflict) in your essay demonstrates self-awareness, reflectiveness, and intelligence, among other things.
An exceptional essay may have moments that are funny, serious, sad, and joyful. (Much like life!) It may also explore how two seemingly opposite viewpoints or perspectives are valid about some issue, big or small.
Whether you’re brainstorming, drafting, or revising, consider this question: What is my essay’s emotional range?
A wide emotional range doesn’t guarantee a strong essay (no single attribute could), but the question may help you avoid the least effective kind of college essay: the boring one.
If you need help crafting an essay with a more dynamic emotional range, drop me a line and let’s talk.