What Makes a Piece of Writing Good?

As this college essay writing season begins, I find myself answering the following question a lot: 

“Hey, David: what makes a piece of writing good?”

It’s a simple but profound question, and I think at first: Argh! People have been debating this very question since, well, writing systems began. So let’s narrow the question a bit (good writing is specific; there – I made a rule!) 

“Hey, David: what makes a college essay good?” 

Which usually means:

“Hey, David: what makes a college essay good oh my god I’m so nervous I wanna get into my dream school and these 650 words are my potential ticket in THEY NEED TO REPRESENT EVERYTHING AMAZING ABOUT ME HELP!”

Ok ok, maybe I’m overstating things, but first off: I get it. The college essay can seem daunting and yeah, it is important. Though it is only one part of your larger application, which includes your GPA, standardized test scores, activities, service, etc., it’s the most immediately vivid part of an application. The personal essay tells a committee reading it a lot about you that they want to know: Who are you as a person? What will you add to the life of the university, in class and on campus?  

There is of course no one way to go about writing a personal essay, but when I answer this question, I find I answer from another part of my brain - the playwright part. 

Because to me, a good college essay is a bit like a good script: in both cases the words on a page need to create a character that comes to life. You need to feel like you know something about that person and – more importantly – that you want to know more about that person. Now with a personal essay you’re not creating a fictional character, but since you won’t be in the room when they read it, it does need to “pop” off the page the way a fictional character does. 

So as a playwright, I try and think: what draws me in? What gets me excited about a person? It’s usually because the writing answers the following questions: 

What does this character genuinely love? Where is this passion taking them? What are they hoping to accomplish and what are the stakes for them? If I get an idea of what you genuinely love - not what you are supposed to love but what really makes you want to stay up all night reading about, or to spend years pursuing… then I’m already rooting for you. 
On that note, have you (this person on the page, that is) faced any troubles on that path? Has something about what you love surprised you, scared you, or even momentarily defeated you? If I know what someone loves and what they have done to pursue it, I am definitely invested!
Most importantly, is there a moment of discovery within the text? This is another way of saying the classic: “show don’t tell.” Yet I find those three words can obscure as much as they explain; after all, isn’t all writing “telling” on some basic level? I prefer to say that within the essay you should follow dramatic structure: there was an old status quo, an old idea you had about the world or yourself…then something happened that set off a cascade of events and… you learned something. You changed. 

Finally, I’m a big believer in sincerity. Yes a good college essay might benefit from a hook, but unlike a catchy pop song, I need to care. Tell me what you’re willing to work towards and I’ll find a way to support you. And while writing the college essay is a hard task, it doesn’t need to be scary. You are not inventing a new you, you are sincerely telling the college about who you already are and how you got there – and giving a glimpse of at least one thing you are passionate about, so we can root for you to develop this passion at college. 

As this season begins I’m excited to get to learn more about everyone I work with…and remember: so are the colleges! They want to like you! So let them in on what you care about…and they will care about you!