Content vs. Style

By Ryan Hickey + updated on August 17th, 2010

If you missed yesterday’s post, we’re trying something a bit different this week at the EssayEdge blog, featuring a brand-new post every single day (well, Monday through Friday at least… c’mon, I can’t think about essays all the time).

Yesterday I reiterated the importance of planning ahead, a simple message that really can’t be repeated enough when it comes to both essays and the admissions process as a whole. Today, I’d like to look at something more focused to essay writing: what makes a story great?

At an extremely basic level, everything you write consists of two components: content and style. Content is what you’re writing about – the information you’re trying to convey or plot of the story you’re telling. Style is the way in which you present that information – your word choice, organization, and other details of the writing. Those aren’t technical definitions of content and style, but they’re one way to understand those terms in the context of essay writing.

Ideally you want both strong content and strong style in your essay, but many applicants focus way too much on content rather than style. They assume that unless they’re writing about volunteering in a poverty-stricken village, conducting advanced research of a new cancer treatment, or singlehandedly leading their sports team to a last-second victory, the story shouldn’t be featured in their admissions essay. In reality, though, many of the best essays out there are written based on content that is fairly mundane. That’s because focusing too much on picking the perfect content can lead applicants to neglect style.

In an admissions essay, even if you’re sharing an amazing experience, your essay will fall flat if you convey the story in a bland or flawed manner. On the other hand, everyday experiences can make for an outstanding essay if you present them in an original way. I’ve read amazing essays on subjects such as napping, learning to drive a manual-transmission car, and terrible gardening skills. I’ve also read bore-you-to-tears essays that talked about skydiving and starting a multi-million-dollar business from scratch. The first group told stories about common events, but did so in remarkably eloquent and engaging ways. The second group talked about amazing experiences, but in a way that made it seem as though they were describing paint dry.

I’m not arguing here that style is more important than content; rather, I’m pointing out that style can make up for seemingly boring content in many instances. And of course, don’t forget that your content, whether an exceptional experience or everyday event, needs to be connected to you personally on some level and give the reader insights into who you are and why you’re a great applicant. Otherwise, all the style in the world won’t make your essay strong.

So keep that in mind as you prepare to write your essays. You don’t always have to discuss the craziest, most impressive, most unique thing that’s ever happened to you. Sometimes, a more everyday experience can make for an even stronger essay, provided that you tell it in an engaging way.

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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