So You Want To Write a College Essay

Long ago, a man born in a peninsular region of far northeastern Greece left his provincial home to head for Athens, the New York of his day. Any young man who wanted to hit the big time went to Athens in this era, and if he were particularly bright and lucky, he would enter Plato’s Academy, as Aristotle did. It was here that Aristotle produced his first works, which are now known only through a few fragments, but it is also here that Aristotle first began to formulate his ideas about persuasion, ideas which were saved and passed on to us in the form of Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

So what, you say; cut to the chase. What does this have to do with a bloody college essay?

In a word: plenty. Regardless of the prompt which you must address and the approach you take to this prompt, you are writing a persuasive piece when you write a college essay. And what is the purpose of persuasion, my friends? To change minds, to shift your application from the great, gray stacks of anonymous folders and computer files to the Arcadian vales of the admitted.

So back to Aristotle. He gave us a description of the persuasive situation which has been formalized as the Rhetorical Triangle, due to the three parts he identified: logos, ethos and pathos. What exactly the triangle is and means depends partly on which aspects of the description you emphasize.

Bear with me here while I explain. If some brilliant teacher has already indoctrinated you into the Aristotelian realm, read on anyway for the gems I will secret in this familiar landscape.

Ethos is you, or more specifically, your character. Who you are can help persuade your reader to accept your argument. Would you by more prone to listen to Sammy Slacker or William Wonderful? Would you want to admit a careful craftsman to your school or an inattentive layabout? Does your essay show care and craft? Dumb mistakes like homonym errors or poor grammar immediately cast doubt on your ethos. If you don’t seem to care enough to polish the essay, why should your reader care about you? What kind of voice speaks in your essay? Is your tone right? Do you establish your credentials or personal qualities?

Logos is the reasoning and language which conveys an argument. It is your essay as a physical block of words, your thought embodied as a verbal structure presenting certain ideas or proofs in a certain order which leads to certain conclusions. In a classical argument, this is the proofs used to demonstrate a proposition. But wait, you say. The prompt asked for a narrative–I had to write something about a time I did x or when I experienced y. Excellent, I respond. But in the personal statement or admissions essay situation, even a tale told is a kind of argument, the thesis of which is: let me attend your university. What did your story demonstrate and how did it demonstrate it?

Pathos relates most directly to your audience, to your effect on your audience. Do you engage your readers’ emotions? Do you establish a connection with them by giving them a story or an argument they can care about? Humor is invaluable here, but it can also backfire with depressing consequences.

Here is another way to look at these elements: ethos is most directly involved with you, the writer or speaker; it is both the “inner you” that shapes the essay and the way in which the essay reveals your character. Logos is the essay itself as a construct of thought, of vocabulary and syntax; pathos is the audience you address and the empathy, the emotional response you create in your audience.   It is this last element with which you must begin and end.

Let us consider your audience: an adult faced with stacks of folders and thousands of screens full of admissions information and essays. Imagine that person sitting in front of a computer screen eight, nine, ten hours a day, reading, reading, reading. Imagine that person with his own smart-alecky teenagers. Perhaps that person at one time was a classroom teacher.  Have you considered the person who will be reading your essay?

One of my clients, let’s call him Chuck B, responded to a common app prompt to tell something about himself which the rest of the information he submitted did not necessarily reveal. He began in this way:

I was already reciting the alphabet when I was two and I could read alone at the age of four. The summer I first picked up a basketball, I was able to do layups by the end of July,  and by the end of August, I could play horse with my older brother, who was a starting guard on a rec league team.  I didn’t start playing soccer until eighth grade, but they made me team captain in ninth grade, as I have been every year since. In a similar way, I picked up the guitar late, only two years ago, but in the last few months have started taking lessons in the classical Spanish style of playing, in addition to fronting a punk-oriented band.

Things just come easy to me, which is why I believe that I will quickly adapt to college and be an asset on your campus.

And so it went. For two more pages. While I was first reading this essay, I kept waiting for the punch line, for the glimmer of ironic humor or the linguistic wink that would allow me to laugh along with the writer at the blissful pomposity of the essay–could he leap over buildings with a single bound and outrun a speeding train?   It never came. He was not joking. He was also not aware of what an arrogant jackass he came across as.

As a matter of fact, Chuck is one of the sweetest young men I have ever taught and he is, in fact, as talented as he claims to be in this essay. But all a reader sees is a self-congratulating bozo. Because Chuck did not consider pathos, the nature and feelings of his audience, he also failed on a second leg of the triangle, ethos, for his true character was misrepresented despite the fact that he truthfully related a lifetime of skills and accomplishment packed into seventeen years.

This shows a certain kind of blindness which is very common, even among students who are otherwise self aware and intelligent. It also shows how, while you may emphasize one aspect of the rhetorical triangle over the others—perhaps you highlight logos as you lay out a logical and detailed solution to a great problem, or you demonstrate ethos as you describe how you volunteer every summer to build housing for those who need it—ultimately the triangle of ethos, logos and pathos are impossible to tease apart. You must write well in a way which appeals to your audience to show your best self.

Your next step is either to get going on an essay—show some ethos, some discipline,  and start now—or, if you have an essay, or several, get some feedback, preferably from an adult. Your sharpest and therefore most useful criticism will come from someone in the craft, a writer or a teacher of writing who is familiar with this particular kind of essay, but any adult who is a good reader can get you started. You need to see and hear the response of that older audience, you need to ask them for suggestions on the piece of writing you give them, and you need to find out what kind of person they see there on the page.

And remember: this is a process. Don’t cling to anything as somehow necessary and final. You will learn a lot about yourself and about the world by being open to criticism and reexamining yourself and your world. That’s what Aristotle did when he left home for Athens and entered the groves of Plato’s school.

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