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How To Write The Perfect College Essay–Paint A Picture

Philip IV by Velazquez
painting of Philip IV by Velazquez
A Portrait of King Philip IV of Spain by Velazquez

When telling your story on your college admissions essay, you have to paint a picture.

The Portrait Example

Let me explain. Visuals  might help. So let’s start by looking at this portrait of King Philip IV of Spain by Velazquez. A portrait like this is fairly static:  no movement, no grand story to tell. It’s just a guy wearing a fancy outfit. But what makes this portrait interesting?
It’s the details.

Look at the flow and drape of the cape he’s wearing. Notice the care and attention the artist paid to each bit of embroidery on his vest and his pantaloons. The color of the curtain in the background is balanced by a similar red in the chair upon which Philip rests his left hand—a detail which only helps to enhance the central image. Look at Philip’s face, and the care with which Velazquez paints his upturned mustache. And what, pray tell, is that piece of paper Philip holds in his right hand? A love note?

An important missive from France or Italy? Or just a doodle he scotched off while trying to stay awake in a really boring meeting?  The details help make the painting interesting, and raise questions in our minds about the central figure (which in your college essay would be you!).

The Landscape Example

A winter landscape by Pieter Bruegel
A winter landscape by Pieter Bruegel

Now take a look at this landscape by Pieter Bruegel.  Your eyes may first be drawn toward the people on the pond. Note that each one is different.  We might first assume that they are skating, but where are the skates? What are those balls or rocks doing on the ice, and what are the people doing with them?

How about the old guy using a stick for balance:  should he even be out there on the ice? Note the bare branches in the foreground with the birds on them.  How do these branches help enhance the landscape by giving us a sense of perspective (we are viewing the scene from a distance). Taken as a whole, the scene is a bucolic winter’s day full of fun and frivolity. But without these details, the landscape would not be as interesting or lively.
So, when you sit down to write your college essay, you’ve got to paint a picture with your words.

Your college essay is a story, as I’ve said before.  But the story loses all interest and meaning if you don’t take the time to fill in interesting details about the people (as in Velazquez’s portraits) and the setting (as in Bruegel’s landscapes).
Of course, the details must be pertinent, and they must enrich the story. Too many details will obscure both the plot and the meaning of the story. But you have to give your reader enough specifics that she is able to see the people and places in your story in her imagination.

Like the viewer in the Bruegel landscape, your reader can get enough detail to take it all in. Look back at the landscape. Bruegel’s winter scene is viewed a distance, so we can’t see the exact expressions on each person’s face. We can’t make out precisely what each figure is doing or thinking. But we get a sense of the whole because of the important details that Bruegel does provide—and from these details comes our enjoyment of the story Bruegel depicts.

Untitled 17 My Mark Rothko
Untitled 17 My Mark Rothko

So it is with you. As you write your story, fill in details, especially in those first drafts. Describe your characters and the setting in a way that brings the story to life.  You may start out by inserting too many details, which may not be a bad thing at first. You can always cut those that are not essential to the plot or the principal message of the story.

But without details, your story will be as hard to interpret as the paintings of the abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko:  there’s a message in there someplace, but it’s kind of hard to discern at first glance.
For more on writing the best college essay, see these posts about the importance of answering the promptconsidering your audience and telling your story.
You can also read these guides for answering each of the Common Application prompts:
Your background story
A instance in which you failed
A place that means something to you
Standing up to a belief or idea
Your transition to adulthood


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