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How To Write A College Application Essay Like Ernest Hemingway

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Writing the personal statement for your college application is more like writing a short story than a summary of your accomplishments.

You will need several storytelling tools at your disposal. Tools that Ernest Hemingway will soon show you how to master. I've covered some of these tools in earlier posts, and in my free PDF (which, if you haven't emailed me for, you should now!) but I'll reiterate some here, and then show you how Hemingway does it below...

Essential Tools For Writing A College Essay/Personal Statement:

Your storytelling tools

1) A distinct voice that conveys your personality. The tone of your writing is also important to ensure the reader does not become bored.

2) Emotional resonance. We need to know why your topic is important. Why we should care. "So what?"

3) A reason to keep reading. This starts with a killer first sentence that makes your reader desperate to know more. Another word could be "suspense."

4) Descriptive language. We need to see and feel the story.

5) Show don't tell. Let your reader make their own conclusions. Don't moralize them.

6) Vulnerability. I'm not sure if this is a "tool," but it's certainly a necessary element.

How does Ernest Hemingway use these critical writing tools?

First, read a very short story called A Very Short Story. Needless to say, it won't take much time. Find it here. I will paste it at the end as well.

Here are the tools:

1) A distinct voice: Consider the sentence, "Luz sat on the bed." Simple. Direct. But with these staccato sentences, he manages to pack considerable meaning that transcends the words themselves in a way that makes you wonder for a second, and then recognize what he means from your own life. For instance:

They felt as though they were married,

but they wanted everyone to know about it,

and to make it so they could not lose it.

Of course, they wouldn't lose their relationship--you can't take the line of text literally. He's talking about a very human feeling--the delicacy of a budding romance--but describes it in his particular, blunt style.

This style was developed from years of covering sports as a journalist. It demonstrates his confidence in avoiding any unnecessary words. It shows his bold and direct, yet thoughtful and emotional personality. In other words, we get a sense of his voice as a writer, and what's more, who he is as a person. Lastly, it is a unique style of writing that feels fresh and surprising, which keeps our interest throughout the piece.

A word of warning: For college essays, be sure to change up the length of your sentences. Like I'm doing here, you can create a rhythm with a medium, long and short sentence, which keeps your reader's brain engaged. See?

Like Hemingway, you can also cut out qualifying words such as really, very, obviously -- or even change something like "profound interest in my hobbies" into the simpler and more descriptive "fascination with my hobbies." The word "profound" did nothing except signal to us that "interest" wasn't the right word for you to use in the first place, and therefore you needed to modify it.

2) Emotional resonance. It's a story about a guy who likes a girl... SO WHAT? Why should we care? Generally, readers care and feel invested when something is at stake. That is to say, when the character could lose something that we know is important to them. The trick is showing how important that thing is.

In the story, we know how important Luz is to the main character because she is the only person who keeps him company while he is injured at the hospital. Immediately, we have a reason he needs her in his life. This is not a merely about the generic value of love, such as "the character needs her because he loves her." A reader who thinks love is stupid might still be able to say, "So what? Can't he just find someone else if this doesn't work out?" So instead, Hemingway gives us a singular, specific, heartbreaking reason why the main character needs Luz. You can't keep asking "So what?" after we're told he needs Luz because she is the only person he has in his life. Without her, he would be a lonely cripple in a foreign city. That is finally a definitive answer to "So what?" We see that something is at stake for this character--he could lose something he needs. So we care.

But Hemingway does not stop there. The two characters are desperate to be married but cannot, and by seeing them come up against this obstacle, we root for them. There's nothing like the underdog. Hemingway even uses the "show-don't-tell rule" by saying, "he felt sick about saying good-bye," which gives us a clear picture into the man's head. He loves this woman so much it has a physical effect on him. Again, it is not a generality about "love" that a reader may or may not relate to... Nobody can say, "I still don't get the connection between these two" when we see the guy in physical pain when he says goodbye to the girl.

When the stakes are raised, we will stay invested and feel the main character's pain. We have been shown how important this relationship is, and without reading further, intuitively know that if she were to break up with him, he would feel sick and feel lost and lonely. We know what is at stake. And when something is at stake, we care. Therefore, the tragic ending will crush us, as Hemingway intends.

This tool might be hard to relate to your college essay. But consider this--if you are talking about how your grandmother's struggle with arthritis inspired you to be a neurologist, you need to show us how much this woman mattered to you. It's not enough to say you think being a doctor would be amazing. You have to say how by becoming a doctor, you won't have to watch another family suffer like yours did. Notice how that is specific to you, singular, and heartbreaking? While "being a doctor is amazing" is external, general, and someone could easily disagree with you.

3) A reason to keep reading. The first sentence is your chance to grab the reader. Let's look at Hemingway's... "One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town." I immediately want to know who is carrying him, why he needs to be carried, and what's going on in Padua (Italy). Hemingway sets us down without context and makes us play detective from the start. Smart readers love nothing more than playing detective. Note that playing detective is very different than being confused. Confused is when we feel as if we should know what is going on but don't. That makes us hate the writer. A good first sentence makes us ask a question, and we love the writer.

As the story moves on, we become engaged in the characters' relationship through his romanticized perception of Luz, Luz's care for him, and their dynamic which we see through the joke about "friend vs. enema." A romance is the second thing a reader loves, as long as we've been given compelling reasons to root for it (see the section about emotional resonance!). The joke they make is one example of how Hemingway shows us that they care for each other and are good for each other. He must show, rather than tell because if we were merely told that these two ought to be together, we would lack evidence. We would not be able to experience their falling in love for ourselves, and therefore it would not feel real. We wouldn't care.

So remember to make your reader ask a question about your first sentence. And never let your reader have a chance to say "prove it, give me evidence so I can believe you." For instance, if you love hockey, could you talk about how you wake up at 4AM to get on the ice before school? At that point, you don't need to say you love hockey, I see it!

4) Descriptive language. Hemingway uses most of the five senses in his story. Especially early on in the story, and toward the beginning of paragraphs, Hemingway paints the picture of Padua with the smokey chimneys and searchlights, and the sound of "the others" on the balcony below. This makes the story come to life. Alternatively, it would read like a boring report on the events. We would not be able to imagine it or picture ourselves there. And then we wouldn't care, which, as you are beginning to see, is the cardinal sin of story writing.

So, be sure to include hyper-specific sensual details to ground the reader in the story. But only enough to engage your reader. If you go on and on and on about how your stomach churned, and the spooky forest creaked, and your nose scrunched up at whatever that smell was... We'll eventually get bored (rather than get on board).

5) Show don't tell. I already touched on this. But I want to highlight the ending. Hemingway never says that the protagonist was upset by his fiancée breaking up with him. In fact, there's no talk of emotion at the end. But we see that the protagonist never writes Luz back, and engages in some self-destructive behavior in the back of a taxi. Those two things show us how he felt about Luz's letter. He clearly didn't take it well. And isn't it more fun to infer that for yourself than to get handed the explanation? You get to play detective and feel grateful for Hemingway respecting your intelligence enough not to hand you all the answers.

6) Vulnerability. It is hard to see vulnerability. It shows up best in the details--when the protagonist feels Luz "cool and fresh" in the hot night air and pictures her in his bed. It's a very private moment, and it feels real because of how specific it is. Consider how specific the last sentence is: "he contracted gonorrhea from a sales girl in a loop department store while riding in a taxicab through Lincoln Park." If that didn't happen to Hemingway, it absolutely must have happened to somebody he knew, right? How can you make that detail up? Not only is it vulnerable, but the heartbreak we see him feeling is vulnerable (...that being said, keep self-destructive behavior and lewd scenes out of your application essay, please! At least don't tell anyone I said it's okay).

The fictional character is experiencing things that feel like they come from Hemingway's reality, as if Hemingway is admitting to some personal details. And what's more, these admissions belie a troubled emotional life. Opening up like that takes guts, even through fiction.

In reality, Ernest Hemingway was in WWI and met a nurse in Milan. They agreed to marry, but later she broke it off. A Very Short Story is remarkably autobiographical, which is why it feels so true and real. This comes full circle to writing with a voice. Hemingway famously said, "Write the truest sentence you know." And he did that over and over again in this story, and the effect it has on the story is hard to describe. It feels like we are getting to know the author intimately through the details he uses and the personality of his diction. We get to see his character arc as he falls in love and grows up, finally prioritizing maturity over his old friends, only to have his hopes dashed. That is brave writing.

For more on vulnerability, watch Brené Brown's special on Netflix.


All these lessons took Hemingway years to learn and more years to master. But the more you read, the more you will see what makes an author's work feel compelling to you, and which tools they employ to have such an impact on you.

In writing your college essay, remember that it is your goal to have an impact on your reader. To catch and keep their attention, and take them on a journey into your essence. The moments that, like Hemingway, you can highlight along this journey should be moments that shaped or changed your core values, or the way you see the world or the people or objects in it.

Now email me for a free PDF to get more insights on writing the essay. There's some particularly good stuff about the 4 qualities top-tier schools are looking for, which I recieved directly from the Dartmouth College Admissions Office; you'll be able to apply those qualities to your essay, just like we applied these 6 tools from Hemingway!




Sorry the formatting's weird...

A Very Short Story by Ernest Hemingway 

One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town. There were chimney swifts in the sky. After a while it got dark and the searchlights 
came out. The others went down and took the bottles with them. He and Luz could hear them below on the balcony. Luz sat on the bed. She was cool and fresh in the hot night. 

Luz stayed on night duty for three months. They were glad to let her. When they operated on him she prepared him for the operating table; and they had a joke about friend or enema. He went under the anaesthetic holding tight on to himself so he would not blab about anything during the silly, talky time. After he got on crutches he used to take the temperatures so Luz would not have to get up from the bed. There were only a few patients, and they all knew about it. They all liked Luz. As he walked back along the halls he thought of Luz in his bed. 

Before he went back to the front they went into the Duomo and prayed. It was dim and quiet, and there were other people praying. They wanted to get married, but there was not enough 
time for the banns, and neither of them had birth certificates. They felt as though they were married, but they wanted everyone to know about it, and to make it so they could not lose it. 

Luz wrote him many letters that he never got until after the armistice. Lifteen came in a bunch to the front and he sorted them by the dates and read them all straight through. They were all about the hospital, and how much she loved him and how it was impossible to get along without him and how terrible it was missing him at night. 

After the armistice they agreed he should go home to get a job so they might be married. Luz would not come home until he had a good job and could come to New York to meet her. It was 
understood he would not drink, and he did not want to see his friends or anyone in the States. Only to get a job and be married. On the train from Padua to Milan they quarreled about her not being willing to come home at once. When they had to say good-bye, in the station at Milan, they kissed good-bye, but were not finished with the quarrel. He felt sick about saying good- bye like that. 

He went to America on a boat from Genoa. Luz went back to Pordonone to open a hospital. It was lonely and rainy there, and there was a battalion of arditi quartered in the town. Living in 
the muddy, rainy town in the winter, the major of the battalion made love to Luz, and she had never known Italians before, and finally wrote to the States that theirs had only been a boy and 
girl affair. She was sorry, and she knew he would probably not be able to understand, but might some day forgive her, and be grateful to her, and she expected, absolutely unexpectedly, to be 
married in the spring. She loved him as always, but she realized now it was only a boy and girl love. She hoped he would have a great career, and believed in him absolutely. She knew it was 
for the best. 

The major did not marry her in the spring, or any other time. Luz never got an answer to the letter to Chicago about it. A short time after he contracted gonorrhea from a sales girl in a loop 
department store while riding in a taxicab through Lincoln Park. 


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