Essays are arguably the most important things you’ll need to know how to do during high school. You’ll write them in nearly every class, and when college applications come around, they’re what you’ll most need to focus on. Essays don’t have to be hard, and they don’t have to be painful. I’m here to give you some cheats, some tips, and some advice. Hopefully, something will be relevant to you.
First, the cheats. One thing you’re going to notice about most high school essays is that your teacher will give you a page, not a word count, requirement. And sometimes, you’re just a half a page away from your goal with absolutely nothing left to write. That’s not fair, is it? You’ve worked hard, your essay is decent, but there’s that stupid half a page you need to fill!
If you’re feeling devious, try this*: Go to your “find and replace” tool. Type a period into the “find” bar and another in the “replace”. But on the replace bar, change the setting so that your new punctuation mark is a couple of text sizes bigger. Now hit “replace all” and viola! Your pages extend. This works better than making the text bigger or the margins wider because it’s so subtle. Your teacher isn’t going to be paying attention to the size of your punctuation.**
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, you want to be a bit more honest with your schoolwork. (Who are you??) So you’ve got about a half page left in an essay, but you’re done writing. So here are some tried and true methods to squeeze a couple more sentences out; intros and conclusions.
I’m not just talking about your first and last paragraphs, but also the first and last lines of your body paragraphs. Add an extra transition sentence. Wrap something up with a slightly new twist. Add a better- and longer- tag line to a paragraph or a thought. You’d be surprised how well this will work.***
Speaking of intros, though, a good intro paragraph will really set you apart. Teachers appreciate fresh language and an artful way of introducing a subject. Starting an essay with “Albert Camus wrote the Stranger, which was about existentialism. In this essay we’ll look at his imagery, his metaphors, and his ideas on morality.” is a straight path to a “B” at best.
Let’s look at the essay I found under my bed as an example. I wrote it my junior year in an AP class and was awarded a “9”, which is the highest AP essay grade you can get. My teacher wrote “wonderful intro” as part of his reasoning for this grade, so I figured it would be a good example.
For context, we had to write a critical analysis of an essay looking at literary devices within it.
Since the Great Depression, Americans have become hyper-aware of their personal affluence and the affluence of those around them. Because advertising the contents of one’s wallet may not be the most effective way of broadcasting one’s wealth, Americans have turned to the next best thing; displaying materialistic epitomes of the modernizing nations. In her essay, “The Plastic Pink Flamingo: A Natural History”, Jennifer Price remarks on one such cultural landmark. She reveals her view of United States culture through her acute use of imagery, diction, and allusion, all coming together to form a unified sense of cynicism.
So first off, this introduction took up half a page, which is great. There wasn’t a page goal for this essay, but length is always a good first impression. Now let’s look a bit more critically at this introduction.
Notice how I didn’t even mention the essay I was analyzing until the third sentence. This is where most writers go wrong; getting straight to the point. Your teacher, or your anonymous grader, knows what you’re writing about. The prompt is right in front of them. They’ve read hundreds of essays about Jennifer Price’s thoughts on materialism. So give them something new. Lull them into a sense of freshness with an introduction that sounds like music rather than machinery. I never start my essays with the prompt, and I’ve always gotten good marks on my introductions.
Next, let’s look at the language. I don’t expect everyone to write essays with words like “affluence” and “materialistic epitomes”, big words are never frowned upon, if used right. But beware: overuse is almost worse than under use. I could have said “She disseminates her persuasion of United States culture“, but that just sounds silly. Sometimes, “reveals” and “view” are plenty.
Finally, let’s discuss thesis sentences. Mine was here: She reveals her view of United States culture through her acute use of imagery, diction, and allusion, all coming together to form a unified sense of cynicism. My best advice for you here is to hide your thesis as well as you can. Mechanically stated “this is what the author is saying and this is how I’m going to explain it to you” is boring and unimpressive. Think of your essay like a story and not an academic paper; let the words flow and be pretty.
My last piece of advice regarding essays has to do with your style more than anything else. I understand that some people aren’t good at making up fluff that sounds pretty but really has no technical reason for being included. And you don’t have to be able to BS pretty stuff to write a good essays, you just have to be original. Go big. Bring something new to the table. Think in unusual ways. Use lit terms that might not normally have been connected. Talk about minor characters in ways that make them seem more important. Don’t just write; analyze.
Have fun with essays, because they are the one place where you can express your personality. ****
*this cheat works best when your essay is double or 1/2 spaced.
**I think I’ve used this cheat once. But usually I’m trying to make my page count smaller. Once I spent a half hour making my margins smaller and my text smaller so that I could condense the essay I’d written. Sad, eh?
***if all else fails, just go through and switch out small words with longer, more complicated ones. This will get you one or two more lines, at least.
****WARNING: Never put first person narration into analysis essays. NEVER. I got pegged on that a lot this year. I’m too much of a blogger. I use “you” and “I” like I’m talking to a friend. But that’s not how critical essays are supposed to go. When in doubt about the use of an appropriate pronoun, just use “one” or “people”. The more general and the less personal, the better.