Consider your audience No matter what kind of writing you are doing, you must consider for whom you are writing it. Who’s your audience? This is a good question to ask even as you write your high school papers. If your answer is, “my teacher,” then you may not fare as well as you might if you imagined about writing a paper (about a Shakespearean play, for example, or the causes of the Civil War) for your mother.
I’m serious. If you write for your teacher, you are going to presume too much knowledge on the part of your reader. You’re going to forget to tell the story, neglect to connect the analytical dots, and assume that your teacher (who already knows the causes of the Civil War) will fill in the blanks. But too many blanks make for a holey paper. So, write it for your mom. She can understand your academic point (because she’s a smart woman and she loves you), but you may have to lead her through it more methodically, and you may have to explain things a bit more carefully. And a methodical, careful paper is going to be better than a holey one.
So for whom are you writing your college essays? Good question. The answer is “some anonymous reader of unknown age or life experience whose job it is to find some reason to say no to my college application.” Are you starting to tense up? Actually, you don’t have to imagine your audience in such a negative light. But you do have to keep in mind some basic characteristics of your audience. These characteristics will help you write a more methodical, careful paper (and not a holey one). Your reader is tired and easily bored. It’s the dead of winter and he is curled up in front of his space heater, drinking tea, trying to get through as many applications as he possibly can tonight before he starts all over again in the morning. Your essay is the 65th he has read today, and very few have been memorable. He yearns to be entertained. He wants to see something fresh and interesting. He wants to appreciate an creative twist on the same-old essay prompts. He wants something that reads well…like a mystery novel, a juicy gossip column, or at least a well-crafted feature in the Chicago Tribune. So punch it up.
One of the best ways to do this is to pay close attention to the first and last lines of the essay. The first sentence or two, especially, is worthy of your careful consideration: give your reader some reason to sit up and take notice. Your reader may scan your essay first, just to see if it’s worth reading carefully. Again, these essays all begin to sound the same after a while. So it’s natural to imagine your reader scanning it first to discern whether this is just one more formulaic piece about the happy poor people you served at the soup kitchen one evening, or about how you saved the big game by throwing the touchdown pass in the final seconds of the game. Therefore, you can help your reader do the scanning by using some of those excellent writing devices you began learning in primary school. Clear structure: introduction, body, conclusion. Strong paragraph form. Clear transitions. Chronological sign posts: “first did this, then I did that, finally I did that other thing.” You learned these techniques years ago: now is the time to deploy them. Your reader does not have any inside information about your life. So assume nothing. If you’re writing about skiing, pretend your reader is an oboe player. If you are waxing eloquent about physics, assume your reader prefers poetry. Avoid using abbreviations or acroynms that may be perfectly clear to you and your friends, but may have no meaning beyond your circle. To tell someone that you passed through the IC building to go the LRC in order to work on your EE is to use language no one except someone who follows you around day-to-day could understand. Similarly, don’t assume that if you are writing your essay about model trains that your reader understands the difference between an STD and an HO gauge. You have to assume that your reader is educated and happy to learn new about model trains, but don’t start getting technical on him or you’ll lose him (and he’ll doze off there in front of that nice, warm space heater…).
Your reader really wants to like you. Most students imagine admissions officers as really scary people. But it’s not true. Admissions folks are an interesting breed. They generally love their jobs, and they enjoy learning about young people. They see themselves not as the evil gatekeepers who take delight in rejecting applicants with a villainous cackle as they scrawl a big “deny” across your file in frog bile. Rather, they want to share their community with interesting people, and they are genuinely hunting for someone interesting like you. So think of your reader as someone who is supportive and kind to young people. Thinking about the person who will ready your essay will help as you craft it. Don’t assume too much of him, positively or negatively. Just be compassionate and understanding. Know where he is coming from. This knowledge will help you structure your piece in a way that he will appreciate, and that will give him every reason to leap up out of his chair and cry, “finally, someone who understands me!”