Essay Review Sample

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Sample Review

The Essay Evaluation is divided into three parts: 1) OVERVIEW, 2) MECHANICS OF WRITING, and 3) YOUR ESSAY.

Part 1: Overview
General Comments:
This section highlights the principal strengths and weaknesses of your essay, which will be discussed in more detail in subsequent sections. In short, does your essay work? How well? What will the reader come to understand about you? What, if any, are the unique elements in the essay, either in content or style?

Your essay is off to a good start. It starts on a strong note (with the exception of the first paragraph, which I would recommend you skip entirely-but more about that later), with the first few paragraphs painting a vivid picture and using detail effectively to create atmosphere. In general, you do a good job in describing both the external and internal events going on in this story.

What disappoints in this essay is its ending. After telling a very individualized, personal story, you conclude with a string of generalized cliches ("learning from your mistakes," gaining more from defeat than from victory) that do not really emerge naturally from your story. In fact, your final remarks undercut the "exquisite honesty and accuracy" of your main narrative (with which you successfully answer the essay question) because they do not come across as particularly sincere. Take a little time to think again about what the "moral" of your story really is and try to write something that arises more naturally and genuinely out of the facts and details of your particular story. Particularity is key here-remember your essay's conclusion does not need to provide some grand, universal statement about life (this is a common mistake among student essay writers); a "smaller" conclusion more true to your individual situation would be more effective.

As to your question about shortening the essay: you're right, it is on the long side. You will find some more specific suggestions for shortening throughout this evaluation, but one general suggestion I'd give is that you keep your details under control. While effective use of detail is one of the strengths of your essay, do not go overboard. Stick to details that reveal something personal and meaningful, that help paint a picture most effectively-but avoid getting bogged down recording every last mundane detail of every event. Also, watch your sentence construction-in many cases you write sentences that are longer than they have to be. In the fourth paragraph, for example, you begin a sentence with, "I learned at that point in time..." This phrase could be cut down to, "I then learned..."-more direct, more clear, and more effective.

Topic and Theme:
What you choose to write about says as much about you as how it is written. Do the topic and theme of your essay serve your interests? Do you address the question posed by the application?

Your topic proves very effective, since it is obviously one that has stuck with you and that you feel strongly about, and these feelings show through in your writing. But while your story of this particular tennis match works well, a reader is left unconvinced by your "theme," that is, your conclusion regarding your learning from your mistakes and learning more from losing rather than winning. The main problem with this conclusion is that it is too broad and general to suit the specific details of your own personal story. It reads like a generic conclusion that could end almost any essay. Try rereading the last few sentences of your essay-do you see how vague and broad phrases like "invaluable lessons" and "future situations" and "my process of maturing as a person" are? Notice how these vague generalities contrast with the vivid specific details that make your essay strong in its earlier parts.

My point is, try to come up with a more honest and sincere conclusion by figuring out what the real theme of your essay is, based on the personal details that are particular to you and your story. This kind of conclusion will end up revealing something more "honest and accurate"-and unique and personal-about you. I was particularly struck by your description of the long-playing point, and how important that was to the psychological idea of winning. When, at the end, you talk about leaving the match "sad and depressed," aren't you really losing sight of that earlier moment of victory? You could make your conclusion more personal (and more true to the rest of the essay) if you returned to this idea of that moment of winning the point. It seems to me that in that moment you learned something about how victory can lie in the details, not just in the overall picture. This theme would link nicely with your use of detail throughout the essay-that is, your writing style reflects a similar sensitivity to the importance of small moments and small details within a bigger picture.

Structure and Coherence:
How well does the essay hold together? Admissions committees should be able to follow the logic of your piece from start to finish -- can they? How can you improve the coherence of your essay?
Overall, your essay is definitely coherent; even though the conclusion doesn't thematically ring true to me, structurally, the whole piece holds together well.
Abstractions and generalizations do not give admissions committees an adequate picture of you, and in order to distinguish yourself from other applicants your essay needs to testify to your uniqueness. Details bring you, your experience, and your essay to life. And yet you should also avoid providing information that is unnecessary. Do you use detail effectively?
I cannot emphasize this enough, since detail and specificity are what make a good personal essay. Again, you have a good handle on detail and use it quite effectively, but I would advise you to watch out for the two extremes:
  1. Do not let go of detail entirely. The main reason your essay fizzles out at the end is that it abruptly departs from its detailed specificity and launches into vague generalizations that could be tacked onto the end of just about any essay.
  2. On the other hand, also avoid going overboard on detail. It's a hard line to see, but not every detail needs to be spelled out. An analogy: I remember seeing a movie a few years ago that I found painfully slow, in part because there were too many details. For example, when the main character made a phone call, we didn't just see him make the call, we had to watch him dial each number on a rotary phone-tedious!

Likewise, you do not, for example, need to provide the numerical score for each set in the match-this is a personal essay, not a newspaper account, and that kind of detail just bogs down the story, impeding the flow of the more important ideas and facts. I'll give some suggestions on particular sentences in Part 3, but I also recommend that you go through the essay again yourself (maybe after you've made the major revisions) and ask yourself if each detail in each sentence is meaningful and compelling, or just window dressing. Trimming down some of the excessive detail will also help reduce the overall length.

Part 2: Mechanics
Paragraphs indicate changes of ideas or direction in your essay. They allow for natural breaks in the progression of your essay and enable the reader to follow your train of thought. Are you using paragraphs to help the flow of your essay? Do you need more or fewer paragraphs?

Your paragraphs are generally fine in their length and the way ideas are divided among them.

As for specific paragraphs: you have already read my comments on improving the final paragraph. I also have a problem with your first paragraph-frankly, it is rather dull. You have written a vivid, interesting story; why not begin your essay by jumping immediately into it? Delete that first paragraph entirely and just open the essay with the "It was a grueling day..." paragraph. This idea of starting a narrative right in the middle of the action is a common literary technique, especially among the writers of the ancient epics-so you'd be in good company by using it!

While paragraphs signal changes in thought, they must nonetheless be integrated into a cohesive whole. Do your paragraphs work together? Is your essay choppy or difficult to follow?
Your transitions are generally smooth and logical.
Sentences are the building blocks of your essay, and problems within them will disrupt your essay at every other level. Are your sentences well-crafted and readable?
Your sentences are generally clear, coherent, and structurally sound. You do need to be wary, however, for sentences that are too lengthy because they are bogged down with unnecessary detail or because they use wordy, awkward grammatical constructions instead of more direct alternatives. I have noted these in the body of your essay in Part 3.
Admissions committees expect you to know how to write, and this means using proper grammar! Does your grammar require attention? Do you make recurring grammatical mistakes? Specific grammar errors will be addressed in Part 3 as they arise, but this section evaluates your overall grammatical usage.
There are no recurring, glaring mistakes in your essay's grammar, although at times some of your sentences could be edited to read more smoothly and concisely.
Part 3: Your Essay
Essay Info
Degree: Undergraduate
School(s): Cornell, Brown
Write a page from your own life journal that reports something "in exquisite honest and accuracy."
Reviewed Essay:
Below you will find your essay along with comments from an expert tutor. Your essay has not been amended or rewritten for you -- getting accepted is your job, ours is to help -- but you will see recommendations for improvement and indications of errors within the body of the essay. We suggest that you correct all the noted grammatical mistakes, and as for stylistic and thematic adjustments, use your discretion. The best possible essay is the one filled with your ideas.

One day that I will probably never forget is the day that I had to play John Sample in a tennis match. He was easily one of the best tennis players in our school and he had even been given the opportunity to play on the Empire State Team. I remember the match as if it were yesterday. [As I said earlier, I would suggest that you delete this paragraph entirely. It adds little to your story, and your essay would be more compelling if it opened with the next paragraph, jumping immediately into the narrative.]

It was a grueling school day that had ended with an arduous 120-minute physics practical. The school bell that rang was like sweet music to my ears and the only thought that whisked through my mind was that of going home and sleeping in my big, comfortable bed. Just then, I remembered the tennis contest between third singles and I [This "I" should be "me," because it's the object of the preposition "between."]. I sluggishly changed into the clothes that I had in my locker [Here's a place where you're being wordy and unnecessarily detailed--there's no need for you to say "the clothes that I had in my locker." The detail of your locker doesn't add anything to your story. The story would retain its momentum better if you just said, "I sluggishly changed my clothes and headed..."] and headed for the tennis courts. I was very tired and hoped that I would have [Here is another place where your sentence is grammatically correct but wordier than it has to be. Instead of saying, "hoped that I would have," why not just say, "hoped to have"? It's more direct and less distracting.] an easy opponent. However, this was not to be my lucky day. The captain of our team, Brett, was sick [add a comma here] so I had to play someone else--namely, John. [Since I'm suggesting you cut out the first paragraph, you need to add a little phrase here explaining who he is, something like, "...namely, John, one of the star players." Also, in the first paragraph you provide his last name, though there is no need to identify him that specifically in this essay.] Panic and doom dominated my mind when I was told this.

However, I am always an optimist [Well actually, you contradict this statement later when you talk about how you left the match "sad and depressed." So either leave out this statement here, or qualify it a little, saying something like, "I always try to be optimistic."] and tried to convince myself that I could defeat him. We approached the courts and shook hands. In the few initial minutes, we warmed up, just casually rallying the ball, but even then he was playing better tennis than I ever had. The coach then blew his whistle, which concluded the warm-up and signaled the commencement of the match.[This is another example of giving too much detail that doesn't really contribute to the story. If you cut this sentence down to something more like, "Then the coach blew his whistle to start the match," you'll have a shorter sentence that doesn't interfere with the business of moving the story along.] I tried to swallow all the fear and anxiety that I had [Again, you can shorten this phrase-instead of "swallow all the fear and anxiety that I had," why not just "swallow my fear and anxiety"?] and to face my opponent valiantly and courageously. The match began and before I had fully realized [Here's one place you have to lengthen--the verb "realize" needs to have an object (you have to realize something), so write something like, "before I had fully realized what had happened."], he had won the first set 6-3. He had won it [Why repeat "He had won" again? You can trim these sentences down by combining them.] with the utmost ease, returning even my best shots without any struggle or even remote difficulty. [This last phrase is redundant--you can just end the sentence on "struggle."] I tried not to feel discouraged, saying to [Change "saying to" to "telling"--it's more standard for this kind of usage.] myself that he still had two more sets to win and that I would not give in without a fight.

The second set was closer, but I was still not able to [Another place you could streamline your verbiage--instead of "I was still not able to," how about the more direct "I still could not."] break the rigid backspin defense that he used against all my good serves. I realized then that the key to me [delete this "me"] winning the game was to use my brain and not just my tennis skills. I started to experiment with a variety of serves until I found one that gave him great difficulty to return. It was a rather simple serve which [this "which" should be "that"] one would not expect to find in a match of this caliber. I learned at that point in time [Again, too wordy-instead of "I learned at that point in time," try just "I then learned."] that sometimes, simple things could be better solutions to a problem than complex ones could ever be. [This is another sentence that is grammatically correct, but still wordy--you could trim it down to something like "I then learned that sometimes simple solutions to a problem can be better than complex ones."] I lost the second set 6-4 but was confident now that I had a good chance of defeating this adversary of mine. [This paragraph is another place where you seem to be reinforcing the idea that you can get as much out of a small moment-the detail of this particular strategy-as you would out of winning the entire match.] John made a critical mistake in the third set that worked to my advantage. He became over-confident and therefore careless, giving me easy points and hence "keeping" me in the match. The set went to a tiebreaker. I was tired but somehow I found the strength to play on and won the game 7-6. With this win, I became even more confident and aggressive in my game-play, which I believe intimidated John, and though he tried to discourage me by using his fancy serves to get the crowd on his side, I won the fourth set 6-3. [This paragraph is most effective up to the point where you have the "realization." The second half of the paragraph is a prime example of too much detail that's just reporting straightforward events without developing the thematic ideas of the essay. The sentences "John the match" can definitely be cut-you don't need to be writing about him, this essay is about you. The remaining sentences ("The set went... fourth set 6-3.") can be reduced to a single brief sentence that sums up this action, something like, "I gained confidence and won the next two sets." That way, you give enough of a sense of the basic plot, but you keep the momentum of the whole story going forward, so it's a relatively quick transition from one important moment (the one described earlier in this paragraph) to the next important moment, the long point, which is the climax of the essay. In other words, cut to the chase.]

John was furious that he had let me win two sets, and was determined to crush and humiliate me in front of the crowd. [Again, don't talk about him-in this instance, it makes you sound petty. I'd recommend skipping this first sentence and starting with the next one, "John used all his lethal shots..."] He used all his lethal shots against me, and I was becoming [Use "getting" instead of "becoming."] worn out. I tried to keep up with him but his better style of playing kept the crowd on his side. The score was now 5-4 in his favor. Here, [Your use of "Here" sounds a little odd--it's just not standard usage. Say something like, "At this point in the match," which is also a slightly stronger introduction for this important moment in the match and in the essay.] there was a long rally, gruesomely long, where it was "loop" vs. [Don't use the abbreviation "vs."--spell out the word each time, "versus."] "loop",[commas should always go inside closing quotation marks.] "chop"' vs. "chop" and "smash" vs. "smash." I realized that whoever won this point would have psychologically won the match. The point lasted for about 35 seconds but seemed like years. Beads of sweat were trickling down my forehead and I could taste the salty-sweet liquid in my mouth. I was determined to win. [This sentence is important, because it's really about how you were so caught up in the moment that that's what you were "determined to win"--that it became more important than the whole match. In your conclusion, you might want to return to this moment in the essay and talk about this sentence again.] When his smash somehow found my racket and the ball returned to his side of the table hitting the edge on its way out, I realized that I had won the point. I won the next two points with relative ease and this brought me to match point. I was dizzy from extreme exhaustion; felt great apprehension about what I hoped to be the last point. I served the ball low and harmlessly into the net. I not only lost the game, but the match as well. [I just want to remind you not to make it too lengthy a description of the set, just as you do well to avoid going into too much detail about the end of the match. At this point you have already passed the climax of the essay. The important part of this paragraph (and of the whole essay) is the description of the long point that you won--you want to make sure that that moment is the "star" of this paragraph, and any description of the rest of the match (and your losing it) is emphasized less.]

A sense of victory did not permeate the air around me, and instead of congratulations, I received phrases like, "better luck next time." I went home sad and depressed, focusing on my loss. However, at that split second, I realized that this is what had made me lose the match. I learned there that although one cannot be perfect and that one cannot always win, I must learn to deal with my failures and learn form ["from" not "form"--avoid careless errors!] them. After all, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. [Whatever you do, definitely omit this sentence! It's a tired cliché, and you have already proven you can write something more original and interesting yourself.] Sometimes, we gain more from defeat than from victory!

That day was a day that I will remember for the rest of my life, not because I won but because I lost. I learned some invaluable lessons and sincerely believe that I had gained more through defeat than I would have ever gained through victory. The knowledge that I gained there helped me in future situations and I believe that this particular experience has helped me in my process of maturing as a person. I finally learned what the phrase "learning from your mistakes" really meant. [Last reminder to think about what I said earlier about reworking this conclusion into something more original, meaningful, and more specific to you and your story. I think that if you follow my earlier suggestions about cutting back some of the excessive descriptions and focusing your essay on those two important moments, you'll find you have something more substantive to say in this ending about what those particular moments within the match meant to you. Good luck! I hope this has been helpful. You're off to a good start.]