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Write brilliant sentences that give your college essays punch

In Essays.

Reading audiences all share one characteristic: their capacity for focus is limited. This is as true for admissions officers as well as for anyone.

Good writers learn to write around the attention span of their audience.

Attention spans aren't measured in minutes, by the way. They're measured in seconds.

So good writers keep things moving. They balance longer, more complex, elaborative thoughts against shorter, snappier ones that crystalize a point.

In other words, good writers use tempo control.

One of the easiest ways to control the tempo in your college essays is by alternating the lengths of your sentences.

Here's a simple example about paste.

This is the original sentence before it was varied up, no edits or effort to control the tempo:

Original: You should eat more paste. It's an abundant source of cheap food. You don't need to prepare it much. And did I mention it's also nutritious?

Do you notice that as you read, a monotonous rhythm emerges? Each of the sentences is about the same length, with the same cadence.

They roll off your tongue one by one and none of them stands out.

But watch what happens when we convey the same information but vary the structure of the sentences a little bit.

Varied: Eat more paste. It's abundant, nutritious, delicious, and requires little preparation. Oh yeah--and it's cheap!

Boom. We combined sentences into a single longer one. By combining sentences and sandwiching the long between two shorter ones, we gave the passage a little more life. (We also cut words!)

These changes add up over the course of a 650-word essay. They are often, in my experience, the difference between an impenetrable essay and a readable one.

How to vary sentences in a personal essay (example)

Here's another example of varying sentences, this time from a supplemental statement I was handed one time (I asked permission to share and switched up the theme):

Original: In a household with programmer parents, programming is a topic that has always been near at hand. But the focus has been on indivIdual challenges, on how to learn new languages and improve my problem-solving. As I’ve grown, I've begun to see programming as a discipline that extends beyond the individual and that offers a lens for thinking about global issues.

Aside from the generic nature of the subject (ooh, another essay about the relationship between programming and problem solving? Yipee!), the writing itself is flat.

It's flat because the paragraph consists of three longer sentences with somewhat similar structures.

Take a look:

  • Sentence 1: 17 words, two clauses.
  • Sentence 2: 18 words, two clauses.
  • Sentence 3: 26 words, two clauses.

It's not that any one of these sentences is too long or particularly poorly written. But strung together in a row, they cause the reader to weep tears of boredom.

Now look at the same paragraph, same themes, but with varied sentences:

Varied: Computer science runs in the family. My parents are programmers. So is my sister, so am I. I used to see programming as an individual challenge: a process of acquiring new languages and honing my ability to solve problems. But it's more than that. Programming is a lens for thinking beyond the individual, a tool for tackling global issues.

Instead of three sentences, we now have six.

We still have a long, complex sentence in there. But it's smuggled in between shorter sentences.

Each of these shorter sentences acts as a rest stop for the reader, a chance to regain some stamina before continuing on.

So how can you use this in your essays? Here are five tips that will help you improve as you tackle your personal essays

Combine multiple related sentences into a longer one...

Then sandwich the longer ones between shorter ones.

We went over this briefly in the paste example.

Go through one of your drafts (if you have one). Try to find a spot where you have successive medium or long sentences with a similar topic.

An example of this was above: "...[Paste] is an abundant source of cheap food. You don't need to prepare it much. And did I mention it's also nutritious?"

Each of these three sentences is doing something similar: pitching you the benefits of paste.

By combining them into one sentence, we cut length and efficiently organize related ideas under the rubric of a single sentence.

But now it's a long sentence. So the next move is to stick it between two short or medium-length ones. These give the reader a break before and after the main idea.

Tempo control.

Understand the function of longer and shorter sentences.

Long sentences slip and slide around in the excrement of soaring, descriptive detail.

Short sentences bring the reader back to terra firma.

Long sentences traverse long spans of time, summarizing events, developments, or processes that took place over weeks, months, or even years.

Short sentences grunt out the "so what."

Neither form should be used excessively. The unsung hero of this post is the medium-length sentence, which can convey a lot without drawing excessively on the reader's attention span.

Capture attention with shorter sentences before unloading a doozy

The best time to unload a long sentence is after you've already built a funky little rhythm with a few short or medium-length ones.

Longer descriptive or expository sentences are the workhorse of your essay. Shorter sentences convince your readers to not fall asleep half-way through.

Ration them strategically at points in your essay where you really want someone to pay attention.

Effective writing is effective communication. On college essays, effective communication takes strategy.

Where are you hitting your most compelling points? Where is the climax in the story? Know these facts about your essay and write accordingly.

Do a safety check

If you're concerned about your writing seeming monotonous, do a safety check. Go through your application and start counting the words in each sentence.

If you notice a string of three or four sentences in a row with high word counts, that might be a good place to start editing. Start by seeing if you can combine anything.

But keep in mind: your whole essay SHOULDN'T be a calibrated alteration between short and long sentences. Consistent alteration of short/long sentences can be just as bad as bludgeoning your readers with too many long ones.

It's not the end of the world if you have multiple long-ish sentences in a row. There is no hard and fast rule.

But above all, be conscientious of the reader's attention span.

Don't overuse short sentences

Don't go Hemmingway on our asses because you read this post.

Short sentences should be rationed. Use them sparingly as a tool to capture and conserve your readers' attention.

They should be used like a speed limit: to help regulate pace and prevent a ten-sentence pileup on the proverbial interstate of your common app essay.

About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

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