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The secret recipe for a good essay

Have you ever found yourself staring at the recipe for a brand-new cake that’s supposed to be for beginner bakers, but you’re stuck wondering exactly how to fold in flour or whip egg whites into stiff peaks? You try your best to assemble the cake, but somehow it doesn’t recapitulate the picture-perfect example on the cover. Well, perhaps the instructions simply weren't clear.

When working on a piece, whether it’s an essay for a competition or an application statement, I approach it like a recipe. The best recipes, accessible to both beginner and expert cooks, lay out an ordered list of ingredients with detailed descriptions of when and how to combine them. Similarly, while working with my students on their writing, I emphasize strong structure and clear content. Compelling prose transforms a series of everyday moments into an anecdote that captures the writer's unique experiences.

To students more inclined toward the STEM fields, I work with an analogy that’s less like a baking recipe and more like a science project. Just like a recipe, a traditional science report details each stage of the project from the hypothesis to the results. These formulaic components enable a stranger to replicate an experiment stepwise. You want to make it easy for your reader to comprehend how you get from point A to point B. While you’re familiar with your own life—the experiment you’re conducting—the reader requires a set of clear instructions that delineate this progression.

Let’s use the example of a simple paragraph. A strong one for an application statement or a personal essay may contain only three or four concise yet powerful sentences, with each one offering new or clarifying content. If you’re editing your work and find yourself reading a set of sentences with similar yet slightly new pieces of information, ask yourself, “Can I distill this into just one or two sentences?” The answer is often yes.

While you don’t want to write with the word count at the front of your mind, a rigorous approach to editing often helps you free up space so that you can delve deeper into your subject. Breaking down the word count may allow you to cut through any writer’s block you’re facing if you don’t know where to begin. Suppose you have a 300-word application question that asks, “What do you hope to gain from this experience?” If you have three points you’re eager to communicate to the reader, you’ll likely spend a third of the paragraph on each topic. This gives you around 100 words per topic, enabling you to attack the assignment in bite-sized portions. In each set of 100 words, what is the most crucial information to convey to your reader? How your past experiences tie into your application? Certain elements or events that excite you? Potential collaborators? Once you have all these building blocks assembled, the looming prompt transforms into a series of smaller questions you simply have to stitch together.

Understanding the underlying formulas for writing can simplify the process for students who are struggling to understand where to begin. While there’s no way to hack or cheat an essay, you can certainly make it easier for yourself if you approach it piece by piece.


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