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Writing Techniques From a Master

Another guest post to help you with your application essays!


I am a big fan of biographies and memoirs. Not long ago, I read Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, which reflects this journalist’s ability to engage. Applying lessons learned from reading Brokaw can transform the bland and boring into the compelling and gripping.

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Here are a few writing techniques that he uses most effectively:

  • Replace or support declarative statements with vivid details. For example, instead of saying that those who served during World War II came from diverse backgrounds, Brokaw writes, “They left their ranches in Sully County, South Dakota, their jobs on the main street of Americus, Georgia, they gave up their place on the assembly lines in Detroit and in the ranks of Wall Street, they quit school or went from cap and gown directly into uniform.”
  • Brokaw also cleverly utilizes numbers when he wants to emphasize magnitude. For instance, he writes “the 442 Regimental Combat Unit would become the most heavily decorated single combat unit of its size in US Army History.” He then adds, “8 Presidential Distinguished Unit Citations and 18,143 individual decorations including one Medal of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars and 28 Oak Leaf Clusters in lieu of a second Silver Star, 4,000 Bronze Stars and 1,200 Oak leaf Clusters representing a second Bronze Star, and at least 9,486 Purple Hearts.” Note the power in those stats — far more compelling than stirring declarations about incomparable heroism.
  • As often as you can, evoke the senses to enable the reader to experience what you experienced. In describing conditions for an American POW held captive by Germany, Brokaw writes, “…it was the beginning of the long, cruel fight to survive, days of watching other inmates getting shot as they tried to escape, the same meals of watery cabbage or turnip soup, the cold nights with only a thin blanket for cover.” When reading this sentence one can practically taste the inedible soup and feel the icy chill coming through the threadbare blanket.

Use Brokaw’s techniques when writing your personal statements and application essays, and your experiences will come alive for application readers.


By Linda Abraham, president and founder of, the premier admissions consultancy and essay editing company that has helped applicants around the world gain admissions to over 450+ top schools since 1994.


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