I decided to experiment with an op-ed for this project. My original piece is my college essay–written three years ago by me, about me, with the intention of showing why I would be a good candidate for admission to the colleges I applied to. My college essay was deliberately constructed, starting with an element of myself that could theoretically be a character flaw–anxiety–but through a careful arc of anecdotes, personal development and reflection, eventually seeking to prove itself to be a strength, something that sets me apart but has made me a stronger, more capable student and person. I think college essays are generally constructed in this quite deliberate way; whether they are focusing on something quite serious or pivotal in one’s life, such as the death of a loved one or a mental or physical struggle, or something as simple but symbolic and telling as a favorite food. To me, it seems that a lot of people write about these life-changing moments or experiences–as my peers and I wrote our essays, experiences like deaths and eating disorders seemed like automatic topics. However, my mom is now a college counselor (helping students with their college process, not working with a college or high school) and I’ve thought a great deal about her thoughts on college essays. Specifically, she thinks that this very specific type of essay–one that shows that you are not perfect and your life has not been perfect, but these experiences have made you stronger, more well-rounded, a better candidate for admission (and ultimately, you are ok and perhaps now even better than when you started, even if this is realistically untrue)–is not good, because it shows a flaw. If you have struggled with anxiety, admitting you is essentially a flight risk. If you have struggled with an eating disorder, admitting you is a flight risk. And I don’t know if that’s true or fair. I think if someone wrote about a physical illness or disability–say, having cancer or being in a wheelchair, it wouldn’t face the stigma that these mental struggles do. While college essays are typically very embellished and carefully constructed, the idea of writing about a weakness that has made you stronger is at least, theoretically, offering quite an honest and genuine perspective about yourself and how you’ve come to be.
All of this is to explain the question this has led me to explore through an op-ed: what is a college essay?
Op-eds collaborate thought and opinion with factual evidence; they are well written, but incorporate casual anecdotes, appeals to readers, and even humorous additions. This unique combination of different writing styles is perfect for someone to explore an opinion or idea and seek to share and prove their thoughts. Op-eds typically follow quite a few guidelines. Duke University’s Office of News and Communications’ style guide for op-eds specifies 20 guidelines to follow. A few of the most essential ones:
- Shorter is better–aim for 750 words or less.
- Address only one problem, make that one point well, and make it clear at the top of your article.
- Appeal to readers specifically, personally, and anecdotally. Why should they care?
- Acknowledge the other side–but make sure you come out on top.
- Write in an active voice, and one that is understandable by a wide audience.
One of my favorite outlets for op-eds is, of course, The New York Times. My reading of opinion pieces here has definitely influenced how I conceptualize op-eds, and how I plan to write my own.
For further resources, this is The New York Times’s opinion page: https://www.nytimes.com/section/opinion.
A recent opinion piece by Anita Hill on the Cavanaugh proceedings: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/18/opinion/anita-hill-brett-kavanaugh-clarence-thomas.html?emc=edit_ne_20180918&nl=evening-briefing&nlid=7731757820180918&te=1.
Another guide for writing op-eds: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/25/opinion/tips-for-aspiring-op-ed-writers.html