Writing Tips from The Princess Bride

McSweeney’s nails it again with their list of Lines from the Princess Bride that Double as Comments on Freshman English Papers. By extension, I urge seniors to use these tips as they craft their college essays, where every one of the allotted 650 words matters. Let’s break down how the advice from a few of the lines from that iconic movie might help with the revision process.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Perhaps one of the best known scenes from the movie is when Inigo Montoya suggests to Vizzini that he might not fully understand the implications of the word “inconceivable.” As you review your college essay, check to make sure you are comfortable with the meanings and usages of every word you choose. For example, “myriad” is an adjective so, “There are myriad reasons why a student should proofread” is correct. “There are a myriad of ways that this word is misused” is incorrect. Also don’t use words that really carry no meaning such as “interesting.” If I told you that my best friend is interesting, could you tell me one more thing about her based on that piece of information? In general, find the word that most precisely conveys what you want to say, not the biggest word. Here are more words that are commonly misused.

“I don’t think I’m quite familiar with that phrase.”

More often than being obscure, students use clichés in their writing and those tired, overused phrases suggest that the writer is unable to come up with original wording or, worse yet, an original idea. Good writing takes time and, most importantly, it also takes good thought. If the words come to you too quickly, check to make sure that isn’t because you’ve seen them many times before. Remember — admissions officers read a lot of essays that share common themes. Don’t double down on the repetition by using the same words.

“I do not suppose you could speed things up?”

Most students start their essay with an anecdote and that is a great way to grab the reader’s attention, showcase fabulous writing skills, and introduce yourself in a more personal way. But the best opening stories quickly get to the point. This essay isn’t an exercise in creative writing and needs to quickly more to more introspective refections. So, leave out any characters who aren’t necessary to the plot, capture only the “scene” you need, and end that opening paragraph with a sentence that will let your reader know how the moment you shared will illustrate the point about yourself the rest of your essay will explore.

“I would not say such things if I were you!”

Generally speaking, your personal statement should come from a place of strength, illustrate your personal growth, and discuss what is important to you or how you see the world. But it’s not uncommon for students to have other things they want to share about themselves, such as a learning disability or health issue that has impacted their education, days/weeks/months of school missed that need to be accounted for, or a moment personal tragedy or struggle that gives context to a semester of lower grades. There are times and circumstances when this information is important and appropriate to communicate, but typically the personal statement is not the place. Instead, use the optional “Additional Information” section of the application to share these details. Of course, discuss this option with your college counselor first.

The personal statement provides you with the opportunity to share with the admissions office what you most want them to know about you. This essay should be honest, introspective, thoughtfully written and give context to the rest of your application. I hope that in the process of writing, you learn a little bit more about yourself.