When a copywriter writes and advertisement, he considers his target audience and tailors his writing to them in order to increase sales or brand awareness. When screenwriters at Disney write a script for a new movie, they also consider their audiences. So if all of those important people and companies consider their audience and purpose, doesn’t it make sense for you to do the same when you are writing essays?
Most students do have some understanding about those concepts. For example, most of you probably have enough common sense not to write swear words in an academic essay (unless it’s part of a quote that you are analyzing, of course). However, a lot of people do have some misconceptions about audience and purpose of High School/College Essays.
There are a lot of different types of essays that you will write and they all require a slightly different approach. There is the essay that your teacher assigned to you, the essay that you write at home vs. the one that you write on an exam, the SAT essay, the scholarship essay, the college application essay, and probably other types of essays that I forgot to mention. For the sake of time, I will focus on essays that your teacher assigned to you as part of the course/class (I will not make the distinction about wether it’s on an exam or you have time to write at home) and college application essays (for the US). However, for all of this essays, you should consider your audience and purpose so this post applies to those as well.
An Essay that Your Teacher Assigned
Purpose: A lot of students think that the purpose of an essay is either 1.) to do research 2.) to learn something 3.) to express themselves 4.) to inform the teacher about the topic or 5.) to show the teacher what you know about the topic. All of those explanations might be accurate from the perspective of the teacher. However, we are focusing on your perspective not the teachers.
From your perspective, there are only 2 purposes for writing an essay:
- To get a good grade on the assignment
- To make your teacher like you
This means that you write what your audience (teacher) wants you to write and in a style that your audience (teacher) wants you to write it. You should focus on those two aspects more than on actually expressing your opinion on a certain topic or choosing an exciting topic to research. Save your ideas and opinions for your diary, your blog, your novel, or your collection of short stories. Feel free to express yourself freely outside of class. However, the classroom is not the time and place for you to do so.
Audience: The audience of an essay that your teacher had assigned is obviously your teacher (Or in some cases, your TA’s). However, knowing this fact isn’t enough. You need to figure out what your audience (in this case your teacher or TA’s) like and doesn’t like.
Most teachers like:
- Formal, academic language and the use (overuse and abuse) of relevant jargon/key words. By key words, I mean words that she had defined or that were defined in your textbook.
- As much information as possible that had been covered in class.
- Boring, long sentence structure, word choice, organization, and tone. In fact, if you want to fall a sleep while reading your essay, you are probably doing something right.
- If the teacher wants to see an outline, you should submit an outline. And you should stick to that outline. Even if that means that your essay will sound unnatural.
- Paragraphs (this one is obvious)
- Introduction (can be boring, in most cases), body paragraphs (minimum of 3) and conclusion (will be even more boring than the introduction).
- Longer than it actually has to be. If something can be written in 10 words instead of 1, you should write it in 10. The longer you write, the better. Even if there is a word limit, teachers almost always over estimate how much you should write. So you will end up using a lot of useless words to fill up space.
- Whatever aligns with your teacher’s personal and political beliefs and what she thinks is the best answer. If your class contains controversial content, you choose the side of the teacher. If your teacher is a liberal, you write about how affirmative action is good, economic inequality is bad, woman are being oppressed by the patriarchy, etc… (Obviously, it should be relevant to the lesson. Don’t just list random facts that match with your teacher’s political beliefs). If your teacher has a certain interpretation of a novel and you believe in another interpretation, stick with your teacher’s interpretation. In most cases, assume that your teacher/professor/TA is liberal (Statistically speaking, there are more of them in Academia)
- Over explanation of the analysis. Even if something sounds like common sense, it’s always better to explain it.
- And of course, it should have good grammar, spelling, and match the rubric.
WARNING: This is an awful way to write anything in the real world. This advice only applies to how you should write in the classroom. Outside of school work, you should do the opposite of most items written above.
Now, what I have listed is what most teachers like/expect to see. However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Some teachers want to see counter arguments. Some, do want their students to challenge their ideas and play devil’s advocate. Some want the writing to sound pretty. For example, one of my teachers wanted all of our essays to be poetic because she was obsessed with Shakespeare. (In this case, you better start reading Macbeth and learning poetry). Therefore, if you know who will be grading your work, you need to figure out what that person wants. If you can’t figure out who, specifically, will be grading your work (there are 10 TA’s in the class and the professor randomly hands out essays for them to grade), stick with the outline above. It’s the safest bet.
How to Find out What Your Teacher Specifically Wants?
If you know the exact person who will be grading your work, than you are in luck. You know who to tailor your writing to. Now, what you should do is conduct “research” (figure out what your teacher wants).
There isn’t one way of going about research. Also, some methods work and others don’t in certain situations. With this said, here are some ideas of how you can go about this:
- Ask for samples of work from previous students that got A’s. Make sure that that student was in your teacher’s class and that she is not simply handing out some old exemplars from the department.
- Ask people who had previously been in her class about what the professor/teacher is looking for.
- Read Ratemyprofessor.com and other websites. You might find something on them.
- Talk to the teacher during office hours or recess (if you are in High School). No. Don’t ask your teacher, “what do you want me to write?”. That’s a stupid question. You will not get a good answer. Instead, ask for specific advice, casually talk to her to understand the type of person she is, ask her what she thinks is “good writing”/”bad writing”, etc… During this conversations, what she says is often less important than how she says it.
- If your professor/teacher talks politics, pay attention. If your teacher emphasizes something over and over again, pay attention.
- After you get feedback on your first assignment, make sure to read it carefully. This feedback will give you an idea about the type of writing that the teacher wants to see in the future.
- Find a classmate who got an A on the assignment and ask to read his/her work. Chances are, at least one of the A students will agree.
- Talk to the TA’s (if in college). They might have important insights that they might share with you.
- Do a quick, Google search of the teacher. And no. Don’t friend your teacher on Facebook or stalk her.
College Admission Essays
Purpose: Similarly to the teacher case, the purpose of the college admission essay should not be about expressing yourself, about telling “your story”, or about being honest. There are a bit more variation when it comes to the purpose of your college admission essay (from your perspective). The purposes of the college admission essay are:
- For you to get accepted with an unconditional (preferably) or conditional (less preferable) offer.
- Get a scholarship/grant/financial aid (if this is important to you).
- To get directly excepted into the specific school/major/honors program, etc…
Similarly to the previous case with your teacher, this means that you have to write what your audience (admission officers) wants to read. This means that your admission essay should not be your diary or your honest account about your life. You are not trying to convey to the admission officer who you are. You are trying to convey to the admission officer what you think she wants you to be. You are trying to sell yourself and make yourself sound like the “perfect candidate” that the University wants to have. This probably will not be the real version of you. So feel free to lie (as long as it’s something that can’t be checked) in order to “sell” yourself to your audience.
Audience: Your audience are the admission officers of the University. So similarly with the previous example, you should figure out what they (most likely) want to hear. Unlike with the teachers, you will not be able to identify the actual people or person who will be reading your work. So you will have to think about the “most likely scenario”. If you are absolutely obsessed with doing research, try to find something on College Confidential or contact students that already got accepted by the University. Maybe, they will say something useful.
The admission officers most likely want to hear:
- About how you want to “make the world a better place” and “save the world”. Basically, make yourself sound like a nice, caring person who cares about social issues, loves volunteer work, and wants to work for a non-profit. It doesn’t matter if this story is true. However, to make it more believable, volunteer or participate in some fundraising activity at some point during your 4 years of High School. Also, keep in mind that it is extremely unlikely that the University will check the exact details of your “story”. So feel free to exaggerate the truth but don’t go over board.
- Leadership experience: If you had an official leadership position/title, than you are in luck. Just like with volunteer work, feel free to over exaggerate your involvement. If you did nothing extra but was named the team captain, feel free to talk about how you gave speeches to motivate your team before the games in the locker room, gave feedback to everybody after the games, helped the coach organize practice, etc… It’s extremely unlikely that the University will actually check all of those claims. If they do decide to conduct an informal “background check”, they will just ask your school “is it true that John is the team captain of the football team?” not “is it true that John gave feedback to players after every single game?”. The admission officers are human beings and human beings are lazy. They will not check every single claim and part of your “story” as long as your “story” sounds realistic.
- Liberal bias: Your admission officers are most likely liberals so avoid writing anything right wing.
- Diversity: If you are a minority, make sure to highlight that somewhere in your application. Universities are obsessed with diversity now days. This will make you look like a more attractive candidate and also lower other expectations/requirements, which will make it easier for you to get in.
- Special circumstances: If you were bullied as a kid, your family was poor, your parents got divorced, you were sick with a life threatening disease, your mother died, you are physically/mentally disabled, etc… make sure to include this in your essay. In fact, you might even decide to make one of these points the central part of your essay. Similarly to the other cases mentioned above, if it’s 1.) hard to check or 2.) it’s easy to check but you can come up with proof, feel free to include it. This point on it’s own will not help you get in. However, this “special circumstances” will make your other achievements sound more impressive, which will help you get in. For example, if John got a 3.9 GPA and was a captain of his Speech and Debate team, this sounds impressive but not too impressive. However, if we also know that John’s family was incredibly poor so he had to work while going to school to financially support himself, his mother was extremely ill and so he had to take care of her, he got bullied at school every day due to his families’ income, and he managed to get a 3.9 GPA and become the captain of his Speech and Debate team despite all of this adversities, all of a sudden, John’s accomplishment’s sound extremely impressive.
- The writing style should be better than the one you use for essays assigned by your teachers. It should not be boring.
So by this point, I’m guessing this post turned into a “college admissions essay” advice. 😀 However, the main point of this post was about how you should consider your “audience” when writing for schoolwork, just like authors consider their “audience” when writing for other purposes in life.