Finding Invisible Hot Spots with Molybdenum Disulfide Films

Solar Archipelago by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

High power electronic devices are extremely important in electric vehicles and for renewable energy conversion. These devices must be constructed from specific materials that won’t breakdown if you place a large voltage across or large amount of current through the device (most common electronics would burn out instantly at high power). A subset of materials called ultrawide band gap (UWBG) semiconductors are often used in power electronics devices. However, even these UWBG materials can have limitations – heat doesn’t flow easily through the materials so they develop “hot spots” that can eventually cause the device to fail. We know that the hot spots occur, but we don’t always have the right tools to find out where along the device they tend to occur. This is because high-resolution thermal imaging techniques often use light, and the ultrawide band gap material doesn’t absorb the typical types of light used (the energy of the light is much smaller than the energy of the band gap).

To circumvent this problem, we coated the UWBG device with a material that does absorb the light. First, we deposited a film of molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) on top of UWBG materials gallium nitride (GaN) and aluminum gallium nitride (AlGaN). Then, we turned on the device. MoS2 absorbs the heat from the layer below, developing a similar thermal profile as the UWBG device. Finally, we used a technique called thermoreflectance imaging (TTI) to scan a green laser across the device. In TTI, a light detector measures how much green light is reflected from the MoS2 surface. Because MoS2 reflects a different amount of light at different temperatures, we are able to visualize a temperature change across the surface of the device. Thus, the combination of the MoS2 coating with TTI imaging allows us to identify the exact location of the hot spot in the UWBG device.

Check out the research article:
R.C. Hanus, S.V. Rangnekar, E. Heller, M.C. Hersam, A. Kahn, S. Graham. “Thermoreflectance imaging of (ultra)wide bandgap devices with MoS2 enhancement coatings.” ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces 13, 42195–42204 (2021).

Brain-Like Computer Chips: The Hardware Side of the AI Story

Every computer system you own, whether it be a laptop, cell phone, video game console, or even a smart fridge, contains a basic hardware design that dates to the 1940s – a time when computers were built to perform very simple, predefined tasks. Back then, programming new functions on your computer, let alone teaching your computer to program itself, was a distant dream. The computers of today have experienced major advancements, but are still computationally inefficient, energy-hungry machines. This relic of computer design, called von Neumann architecture is being challenged by a more energy-efficient paradigm known as neuromorphic computing, which is based on the principle of designing computers more similarly to the human brain. The primary difference between these two architectures is how they spatially store and process data.

To better understand the differences in computer architecture, we can consider the routines of two hypothetical bakers named von Neumann and Brain Cell. von Neumann is a baker whose kitchen is connected to their pantry by a long corridor. They keep their stand mixer chained to the kitchen counter while the pantry contains all the ingredients they need to bake a cake. In order to make the cake batter, von Neumann must go into the pantry to retrieve an ingredient, but they can only carry one ingredient at a time. After adding the ingredient to the mixing bowl, they must walk back to return the item and select the next one. von Neumann must work quickly and eat many more calories to keep up with their baker friend Brain Cell, an alien with 10,000 arms that can grab ingredients from the many cabinets within reach in the kitchen.

The human brain remains the world’s the most energy-efficient computer despite decades of technological advances. Each brain cell, or neuron, is its own computational sub-unit in the brain, and each neuron connects to 10,000 other neurons through chemical channels called synapses. Memory is related to how often two neurons pass chemical signals to each other through their synapses; the more often they communicate, the stronger the memory linkage. The efficiency of the brain lies in the 100 trillion synaptic connections it can use for rapid communication and storage of information throughout different parts of the brain and body.

In contrast, von Neumann computer architecture spatially separates data processing and memory storage in two different computer chips. The critical sub-units of these chips are transistors, which perform mathematical operations in the processor or enable the reading and writing of data in memory. While technological advancements continue to improve data processing speeds and memory storage capacity by shrinking the size of transistors, one limitation that cannot be overcome is the efficiency with which the processor chip and memory chip communicate with each other.

Now, von Neumann architecture isn’t entirely terrible – it’s been used for decades, from landing Apollo 11 on the moon to streaming funny cat videos at 2 AM. Computational problems that are solved through step-by-step programming (like following a well-loved recipe to bake a cake) perform well in conventional computers. However, our expectations for computer performance continue to grow; these days, we want artificially intelligent computers that can design a brand-new recipe for amazing chocolate cake. That’s where neuromorphic computing really finds its niche. Yet, efforts to develop neuromorphic computer circuits have continued to rely on the same transistors used in conventional computers, leading to complicated circuits that still use a lot of energy. For example, MIT researchers used 400 transistors to simulate a single synapse. What if there were a single device that could match the behavior of a neuron?

Scientists and engineers believe this ideal device exists as a memristor – a contraction of memory and resistor – which is a basic circuit element. While scientists theorized about such a device in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 2008 that researchers proved that a memristor could physically exist. This breakthrough required a team of materials physicists and electrical engineers to puzzle out how to harness the motion of atoms in crystalline materials to create an electron-powered, neuron-like memristor. 

Each memristor acts as a memory storage device by saving information through the arrangement of its atoms. The prototypical memristive material relies on two types of atomic structures: ordered and disordered. By applying voltage to the memristor, and thereby creating a difference in electric potential across the device, the engineer can coax atoms to move between ordered and disordered states. By switching between these states, engineers can “write” and “erase” memory in a memristive material. Because the atoms don’t move without applying a voltage, the material “remembers” its most recent arrangement of atoms. Therefore, unlike many memory storage components in modern von Neumann computers, memristors don’t require power to maintain memory. This enables a new energy-saving, electron-based form of data storage.

Memristor-based devices can also perform data processing functions. Through careful materials design, engineers can construct memristors with transistor-like properties, forming a so-called memtransistor. This hybrid device can retain memory as well as perform calculations on input electrical signals, mimicking neurons with many synaptic connections. In this way, the memtransistor eliminates the energy-inefficient spatial separation between memory and logic processes in computing systems.

While a number of promising memristor-based devices have already been developed in just the past decade, integrating these devices into commercial neuromorphic computing chips will take several more years of research and development. One big challenge is increasing the switching speed between the ordered and disordered atomic states, which limits how quickly memory can be written and erased. Ongoing research aims to solve this problem by designing and testing a variety of materials that can shift between ordered and disordered atomic arrangements. Combining memristor-based neuromorphic hardware with the software innovation of neural networks may provide the one-two punch needed to propel AI to the next level. Using every opportunity to design neuromorphic computers in more computationally- and energy-efficient ways will speed up the time to commercialization. So, who knows? Perhaps 15 years from now, the world’s top pastry chefs will be asking Siri for advice in designing new cake recipes.

Graphene, COVID-19, and Electrochemical Diagnostics

In today’s world, inexpensive and rapid medical diagnostic tests are needed more than ever. We believe that disposable electrochemical sensors can meet this need. Electrochemical sensors measure changes in electrical signals that are caused by binding events between antibodies and analytes. Like clinical RT-PCR tests, electrochemical detection provides a quantitative readout of virus concentration in a samples, but at testing rates more similar to the at-home tests. In short, electrochemical diagnostics enable rapid testing with less ambiguity.

Common electrochemical sensor electrodes are made from gold, which is wasteful for single-use devices. As an alternative, conductive carbon-based electrodes can be utilized. Graphene, a highly conductive, two-dimensional form of carbon, is an excellent candidate for electrode materials. Graphene films are an ideal material for electrochemical biosensing due to their high electrical conductivity, large surface area, and biocompatibility.

By combining emerging graphene ink technology with decades-old protein-linking chemistry, my collaborators and I designed a universal biosensing platform that could be produced at scale through various additive manufacturing techniques. These devices have been used for the rapid electrochemical detection of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. Through careful engineering, my team and I successfully developed printed biosensors that cost less than $4.00 per unit and, within 30 minutes, could electrochemically detect SARS-CoV-2 Spike RBD protein in artificial saliva at a limit of detection lower than most at-home COVID diagnostics on the market.

The Hersam group at Northwestern University and the Claussen and Gomes groups at Iowa State University have collaborated for years to adapt the graphene biosensing platform for various biosensing applications. Almost any antibody can be attached to the graphene surface, allowing the device to be customized for the detection of many types of molecules. As a first demonstration, we detected cytokines, which are immune system proteins that become elevated in the blood during states of infection. We were able to detect cytokines at levels that were medically relevant for diagnosing paratuberculosis in cattle. We also detected the small molecule histamine, which creates an inflammatory response in the body if ingested at sufficiently high concentrations. Rotting fish products can produce histamine, so we developed our sensor to detect histamine in fish broth at medically relevant levels.

Overall, the low cost of manufacturing and short testing time suggest that we can use this printed graphene biosensor platform for other sensing applications, including wearable health monitoring and human health diagnostics. Nevertheless, a few barriers to commercialization do exist. Manufacturing identical sensors that provide reproducible measurements is one challenge, although high-throughput manufacturing techniques like screen printing are beginning to overcome that limitation. Additionally, the accuracy of the sensor can be compromised if the surface of the electrode is not adequately treated to prevent adsorption of undesirable proteins and molecules that mask or imitate the signal from true antibody-analyte binding events. Still, a number of blocking agents and coatings have been developed to overcome this limitation.

The ultimate challenge to commercialization lies with the equipment required to measure the electrochemical signals from the sensor. The key instrument, called a potentiostat, ranges from the size of a desktop computer to a USB drive and represents the most expensive component of the electrochemical diagnostic kit. While similar devices have been mass-manufactured for electrochemically detecting other medical conditions – e.g. glucose meters for diabetes management – the technology is still not affordable enough to be used in a public health/epidemiology context.

Therefore, I see two possible paths forward for electrochemical biosensor commercialization.
1) Potentiostat technology for electrochemical diagnostics is refined and optimized to cost $20-50 per device for the US consumer.
2) Electrochemical diagnostics are pursued for use cases that can justify the higher operating costs.

Researchers at Harvard University chose the second path forward when testing their eRapid electrochemical sensor platform during the pandemic. First, the eRapid system was used in the R&D phase of COVID-19 diagnostic assays in Australia; this suggests that electrochemical diagnostics could become an important clinical tool to improve the performance of more-inexpensive lateral flow assays. Additionally, the Harvard team applied their electrochemical diagnostics in the hospital setting to develop a rapid sepsis assay, shortening testing time from 1 hour to 7 minutes and enabling higher-quality patient care in the process.

I hope to see more clinical applications of electrochemical diagnostics in the coming years.

Selected press coverage of graphene-based electrochemical sensors

My publications on graphene-based electrochemical sensors

C.C. Pola*, S.V. Rangnekar*, R. Sheets, B.M. Szydlowska, J.R. Downing, K.W. Parate, S.G. Wallace, D. Tsai, M.C. Hersam, C.L. Gomes, J.C. Claussen. “Aerosol-jet-printed graphene electrochemical immunosensors for rapid and label-free detection of SARS-CoV-2 in saliva.” 2D Materials, 9, 035016 (2022).

S.G. Wallace, M. Brothers, Z. Brooks, S.V. Rangnekar, D. Lam, M. St. Lawrence, W. Gaviria Rojas, K.W. Putz, S. Kim, M.C. Hersam. “Fully printed and flexible multi-material electrochemical aptasensor platform enabled by selective graphene biofunctionalization.” Engineering Research Express, 4, 015037 (2021).

K. Parate*, C.C. Pola*, S.V. Rangnekar*, D.L. Mendivelso‐Perez, E. Smith, M.C. Hersam, C.L. Gomes, J. Claussen. “Aerosol‐ jet‐printed graphene electrochemical histamine sensors for food safety monitoring.” 2D Materials, 7, 034002 (2020).

K. Parate*, S.V. Rangnekar*, D. Jing, D.L. Mendivelso‐Perez, S. Ding, E.B. Secor, E.A. Smith, J.M. Hostetter, M.C. Hersam, J.C. Claussen. “Aerosol‐jet‐printed graphene immunosensor for label‐free cytokine monitoring in serum.” ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, 12, 8592‐8603 (2020).

Scientist, Dancer, and… Essay Editor?

Hello there! My name is Sonal, and I’m currently at Ph.D. student in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University. Though my day job is being a nanomaterials researcher and my weekends are spent dancing, I have a love for writing and storytelling that connects everything I do. After years of developing a framework for writing creative and authentic personal statements, particularly for college application essays, I have started to share this framework with the world through blog posts. Why should you trust my perspective? Here’s my story (in 500 words!)

As an avid reader since childhood, I always had a keen awareness of literary style and narrative structures. Though I performed well in English classes, even earning a perfect score of 800 in the SAT Critical Reading section, I was at a complete loss when it came to “bragging” about myself in a college application essay. My parents tried to hire a writing tutor to help me, but I would spend hours writing dynamic essays comparing the personalities of myself and our family dog only to realize I was 500 words over the limit with no compelling argument about why I should be admitted to any university. There was a disconnect in my brain between the classic essay topics that my mentors steered me towards and the more creative, authentic stories that I wanted to tell.

I finally connected the dots while working on a different section of the application questionnaire: “Describe yourself in three words.” To choose the most compelling descriptors, I began to aggregate a long list of words and phrases. This act of distilling myself into simple words on paper sparked new connections in my head between my experiences and my personality. This activity helped me gain confidence in my story and enabled me to choose a few vignettes from my life that I was proud to share in an essay. I realized that I could be creative and persuasive at the same time. Over the years, this list-making process has evolved into my 50 Words Activity, which I encourage seniors to do at the beginning of their college application journey. 

To be clear, it wasn’t enough to have a good story to tell; my writing skills were crucial to executing these essays at the level of formalism and maturity expected by university admissions staff. I am fortunate to have had a public education system that taught me about paragraph structure, persuasive essay writing, and advanced English grammar. I relied heavily on these fundamentals to independently write, proofread, and edit my own essays. Ultimately, my personal statements helped me be accepted to ten highly ranked US universities, including UC Berkeley, which became my alma mater. 

Though I am now in a science field, writing and editing have become an integral part of my life. I have helped friends and family edit application essays from the college through graduate school levels and for a variety of programs. During my Ph.D., I have taken classes in science writing and narrative structure from the esteemed Medill School of Journalism. In 2020, I became a freelance English editor for Scribbr, an online editing service. I have also taught a college application essay writing workshop to Chicagoland high school students through the Northwestern Splash! outreach program. I have turned portions of that 90-minute workshop into blog posts with the hope of making this content more accessible to other frustrated high school seniors. I invite you to go through some of these posts, and I hope you find it helpful in your application journey! (499/500)

If you’re ready to start writing, check out these other articles:

The College Application Essay Basics
The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise, Intentional, and Powerful Personal Statement

Writing Rules for the College Application Essay

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There’s a lot riding on your college application essays, so it’s important to put your best writing skills on display. Whether you’re in the planning phase, the writing phase, or the editing phase, keeping a few rules in mind will help guide you to produce a well-written and compelling essay. Below are some fundamental and nuanced rules that will put you on the right track.

Fundamental Writing Rules

You should be familiar with these basic ideas from your English writing classes. Take them at face value – they should be straightforward to follow.

  1. Your first paragraph/sentence must draw in (or “hook”) your audience.
    Good hooks don’t need to be overly dramatic. Oftentimes, placing your reader in the middle of action is sufficient to pull them into the story. Still, make sure you provide enough context, and experiment with a couple different approaches before you settle on your first paragraph.
  2. The paragraphs must flow in a logical manner.
    Plan out your essay by creating an outline before you start writing. Create a logical story with a beginning, middle, and end and then fill in the details. Once you identify the major plot points of your story, you can turn them into dedicated paragraphs.
  3. Grammar and spelling conventions should be followed without any mistakes.
    Avoid silly mistakes by taking advantage of resources like
    – built-in spell checks in your word processor,
    – external plug-ins like Grammarly,
    – asking your friends and family to proofread your writing, or
    – hiring professional editing services like Scribbr.
  4. Everything you write should be your truth.
    Do not fabricate major plot points of your story or plagiarize someone else’s experiences.

Nuanced Writing Rules

Following these rules requires a little more care and creativity.

  1. Write concisely.
    – Flowery prose that you find in English class is not useful in your college essay. – Be careful to not overdo the edits such that the meaning of the sentence disappears or changes.
  2. Choose your words carefully.
    – Avoid reusing words, especially adjectives.
    – Don’t use adjectives unnecessarily, especially “very”, “really”, and “literally”
    – If you use a thesaurus to find a fancier synonym, 95% the word is not going to sound right in context
  3. Be an active character in your life story.
    – Avoid phrases like “I had the opportunity to…” or “I got to…”
    – Experiences are actively pursued or achieved, not stumbled upon.
  4. Emphasize your individuality.
    – Showcase your unique perspective to problem-solving.
    – Avoid writing general or obvious statements.

For more college application essay writing tips, check out these other posts.

The College Application Essay Basics
The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Clichés and Taking Risks with Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise Personal Statement

Avoiding Clichés and Taking Risks in Your College Application Essay

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The perfect topic for your college application essay should be creative, unique, and authentic. Easier said than done, right? With the thousands and thousands of essays published on the Internet, how do you sort through the wacky ideas that were good and the ones that were just really weird?

Perhaps you’ve already been through my 50 Words Activity and have identified some topics that would meet all three requirements for you. But if you’re looking for more reassurance or motivation to proceed with your topic, you’ve come to the right place. Here, I’ll be explaining how to avoid tropes that have long become cliché for college applications and how to take risks with your essay.

Clichéd Themes

There are four main themes that I encourage students to avoid for their essays. While I’m not telling you these themes are banned, don’t make your essay so basic that it falls into one of these traps.

  • The most important person in my life is…”
    This writer often goes on to advocate why their mom/teacher/dog should be admitted to college. While it’s fine to express admiration for important people in your life, remember that you need to be the hero of your own story.
  • Death of a loved one
    This is a tricky topic for many reasons. The death of a loved one can change us in profound ways, but context is key for this topic. The essay shouldn’t be a eulogy to your loved one (again, you are the hero of your story). Also, don’t write about death expecting that it will gain you sympathy points from the reader – it doesn’t work that way.
  • The quintessential “I kept trying and never quit” essay – often paired with a story about sports or speech and debate
    If your essay is as formulaic as “I am an athlete. I struggled with X. My coach made me work hard. I showed leadership and achieved a personal record”, you should try to come up with something more creative.
  • The Reverse Volunteering Story: “I gave my time and received so much more in return”
    Many applications do require a statement about volunteering experience, but it’s important to not be superficial in discussing your efforts. Especially if your volunteer experience is working with people from a lower socioeconomic status than you (e.g., working in a soup kitchen, tutoring disadvantaged kids, etc.), it’s important to remember that other people do not exist to make you feel more thankful about your life. Write from a place of empathy and about finding a common understanding through your volunteer work.

Taking Risks

Creativity often means taking a risk. In my college application essays, I compared myself to Hermione Granger, discussed my interest in the stigmatized art of fanfiction, and even used the words “air hump”. If there’s a unique and authentic side to you that you feel compelled to share, I encourage you to do so. But if you’re really on the fence, there are certain questions that you can ask yourself to decide whether the risk is worth it.

  1. Am I being authentic about my experience or perspective?
    You shouldn’t use a risky theme simply for the shock factor, especially if the topic really isn’t very important to you.
  2. Does the risk distract from telling my story?
    It’s not a good use of your time to spend more time trying to write creatively than explicitly crafting the story about yourself. Remember that your story arc must be the most important part of the essay.
  3. What does my application gain if I take the risk?
    Hopefully the answer to this question is “authenticity”. The topic should feel risky because you’re sharing something very personal with the reader in a creative format. If your answer is closer to “the risk makes my essay more interesting to read”, then reconsider the topic that you’ve chosen.
  4. Is there a trusted person who can give me feedback on this theme?
    Sometimes it’s just best to get an external perspective. Tell a few people you trust about the theme and gauge their reactions. Take both positive and negative feedback with a grain of salt – you should have the final say in what you feel comfortable writing.

Ultimately, the best essay topic is one that you feel comfortable writing about and one that adds depth to your college application packet.

For more college application essay writing tips, check out these other posts.

The College Application Essay Basics
The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Clichés and Taking Risks with Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise Personal Statement

The College Application Essay Basics

This is my first post in a series about writing more effective college application essays. To learn more about me and my experiences in writing and editing personal statements (for college applications and beyond) check out my personal introduction post.

Let’s be real: Writing a college application essay can be TOUGH. High school English classes don’t necessarily prepare us to write about ourselves in persuasive, illustrative ways. And writing one essay is hard enough – what are you supposed to do when the college asks for multiple topics?

Despite these challenges, the college application essay – or “personal statement” – is a powerful component of your application. It allows you to advocate for yourself in a unique way to show the admissions committee that’s there more to you than your GPA, grades, SAT/ACT scores, AP scores, etc. There’s also far more to your identity than being a high school student! For these reasons, it’s important to invest the time and effort to write strong personal statements that communicate the unobvious parts of your experience.

Now that you’re motivated to do a good job with these essays, here are the basic things you should keep in mind moving forward.

One Piece of the Puzzle
Use your essay to add more depth and context to your college application packet. Hopefully you’re aware of what the full college application packet looks like, but if not, no worries! When you apply to a college or university, they ask for your high school transcript, college admissions test scores (SAT/ACT) if applicable, your AP/IB/SAT II test scores, letters of recommendation from your teachers and mentors, and application essays. Some institutions may ask you to interview with a representative as well. (BIG NOTE: Many colleges are making SAT/ACT scores optional for the 2021/2022 admissions cycle due to the pandemic). The weight of your application essays can vary from college to college. You might write an amazing essay, but if there are strict GPA cutoffs for admission at a university, they may never even read your essay. On the other hand, universities that do a more holistic read of your application packet will have a chance to understand poor grades or other comments on your academic record with the context provided by letters of recommendation and your personal statement.

Know Your Audience
So who exactly do you need to impress with your essay? Very generally, the admissions committee is made up of “adults” with college degrees – that is, they could be recent graduates or retired professors. These readers are likely alumni of the institution to which you’re applying, and they are genuinely invested in creating a student body that will both benefit from and contribute to the institution. They’ve read too many application essays to count, so they’re not easily swayed by melodramatic narratives, words (mis)used from thesaurus searches, and superficial accounts of how your volunteering experience changed your life.

It all boils down to delivering a well-written and compelling essay.

The admissions committee is looking for a writing sample that shows you actually paid attention in English class. Your writing must use proper grammar and have a clear narrative structure with a beginning, middle, and end. Hopefully you have the skills to conquer the “well-written” factor on your own, but if you need support, there are a plethora of good resources to help you. You can ask teachers, family members, or friends for feedback on your writing. Professional editing services also exist to proofread and edit your college essay.

Your personal statement needs to have a clear and compelling answer to the question, “What makes me excited about you as a candidate?” This is the real challenge – you must decide the answer to this question for yourself. First, do a little soul searching to figure out what qualities you bring to the table. Then, select personal experiences that really allow you to showcase those qualities. I like to use the 50 Words Activity to identify these key stories that you should tell about yourself.

If you’re ready to start writing, check out these other articles:

The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise, Intentional, and Powerful Personal Statement

Writing a Concise Personal Statement

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“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Mark Twain

Writing concisely is hard. It’s even harder to do when you’re writing a personal statement for a college application with word limits- every word can feel crucial in explaining to the reader who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their university. In this post, I will share the framework I use to edit down words in an essay. The guiding principle is this: Each word and sentence should have a purpose.

(Side note: As an example text, I am using the last paragraph of Kwasi Enin‘s application essay. You may remember how Mr. Enin was accepted to several Ivy League schools in 2018 for his academic and personal achievements, and the essay he wrote was distributed by news outlets. Here, I offer some stylistic critique to the fourth paragraph of his essay and suggest ways that I would improve the writing.)

Let’s get started! Here’s the fourth paragraph of Mr. Enin’s essay.

This paragraph has a clear topic sentence which helps us understand what the paragraph is about: how leadership, teamwork, and friendship have overlapped in his experience as a musician. Below, I explain how I would improve this piece of writing.

Transitioning Between Ideas

In this paragraph, the author has many good concepts (highlighted in red below) that he wants to mention that vaguely tie back to his theme of leadership. The challenge he faces is that there isn’t a clear storyline to link all of these ideas together. There are moments of clarity, but no strong flow between the ideas. Additionally, there is a missed opportunity to take advantage of words like “balance” and “harmony”, which have important meanings in both music and leadership.

Intentional Writing – Show, Don’t Tell

Leadership is the main theme of this paragraph. As I’ve highlighted in red, the author uses three sentences to explain his leadership philosophy. However, the author never identifies his leadership position nor explains how he tried to apply this philosophy in music. Simply put, what has the author accomplished in his leadership role?

Repetitive Language

Repetition can create a poetic feel to a piece of writing. When essays have word limits, I discourage students from using repetition as a literary tool because it’s rarely concise and rarely well-executed. In the text below, I’ve marked in red and blue the points of repetition that I believe inflate the word count unnecessarily.

Minimize Flowery Language (for the Word Count)

When writing my high school essays, I had the inclination to write with the creative metaphors and analogies that I had carefully analyzed in high school English classes. Ten years later, my advice is to avoid this flowery language if you’re struggling with the word count. In the paragraph below, the writer uses several phrases that give a “literary” vibe to his writing. While I always encourage students to write in an elevated form of their authentic voice, these would be the phrases that I cut down on first to write concisely.

Applying the Feedback: The Rewritten Paragraph

Working through the notes on linking ideas, showing experiences, and avoiding repetitive language and prose, I was able to rewrite the paragraph while retaining some of the original language and concepts in blue. Below are my comments on why I made certain writing choices.

In the first sentence, I wanted to put the three main theme of leadership, friendship, and team work in context of one another, rather than simply listing them. Then, I added a specific leadership story that would help show the leadership philosophy. Now, the author is directly addressing how he worked with his peers as a leader and as a friend to overcome adversity, “struggling” through difficult music together. The idea of social bonds is reworked as “section culture”, which is a better buzzword for the college reader. Finally, the concepts of harmony and balance are reintroduced figuratively with respect to team dynamics and leadership and literally as musical terms.

Using this framework and some creative rewriting, I was able to remove almost 30 words when rewriting this paragraph while still maintaining the intention and power behind the words. If I wanted to cut this paragraph even more, I would delete the sentence about section culture.

For more college application essay writing tips, check out these other posts.

The College Application Essay Basics
The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise Personal Statement

Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity

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It’s important to use a college application essay to stand out from the crowd, but finding the perfect topic can be daunting. Your perfect topic needs to be simultaneously

creative – a dynamic story that interests your reader
unique – a story that only you could tell from your experience
authentic – a story that accurately the represents the best parts of you

To help you identify this holy trifecta of a topic, I’ve developed something that I call the 50 Words Activity. I’ve used this approach to write my undergraduate application essays, Ph.D. application essays, and even fellowship/scholarship essays, and I’ve used this activity to help several high school seniors write their college application essays.

The 50 Words Activity helps you find many answers to the question “Who Am I?” You can then identify 2-3 key qualities that you want your essay reader to know about you. To illustrate these parts of your personality in an essay format, you can select activities and life experiences that relate to the qualities.

If you’re using this activity to write a college essay, make sure you’re following the Five-Step Guide and are aware of all the essay prompts you will need to answer. This will be important for Part 4 of the activity.

Let’s get started!

50 Words Activity

Part 1: The Word List

It’s pretty simple: In 10 minutes, write 50 (or more) words or short phrases that describe you.

  • Write each word on a separate line
  • These words can be adjectives or nouns (“smart” and “leader” both work)
  • Avoid synonyms (such as “hard-working” and “diligent”). These don’t add value to your list.
  • Feel free to keep adding words to the list in the days after you start the activity.

When you create this list, the first 15 words or so will the low-hanging fruit – that is, they will probably be pretty generic and obvious words. The words towards the bottom of the list will be the most unique and creative since you have to work harder to think of them. Don’t stress about the quality of the words when you make the list – it’s important to get the full spectrum!

To show you how this really works, here’s an example of the list I might have created when I was in high school (abbreviated to 13 words for simplicity).

The first few words are pretty simple – they’re the words that I’ve always identified with and that anyone would agree with. “Dancer” and “musician” describe activities that I was involved with during that time period. Deeper into the list are the words that are more nuanced parts of me – the things that wouldn’t be obvious to everyone.

Coming up with these deeper words is as simple as breaking down the things that make you tick, the ideas that you’re most curious about, the activities that you spend the most time doing. For example, “I had Thai food last night” might be linked to “I love Thai food a lot and I’ve tried several restaurants in my area and taught myself to make several dishes”. That concept could then be distilled into “Thai food enthusiast”.

Part 2: Focusing Your Word List

Now that you have your list of 50 (or more!) words, take a few seconds to do the following:

  • Circle the 5 words that you’re most proud of
  • Box the 5 words that make you a strong applicant
  • Star the 5 words that show a side of yourself that most people don’t see

The subset of words that you’ve marked will help you focus on the qualities that are both core to your authentic self but also important to gaining admission to the university.

Part 3: Adding Context to Your Word List

Next to each word, write an experience that you associate with that word. This will help inspire ideas for your essay. Choose experiences that are reflective of your emotional attachment to that word. For example, an experience for “bookworm” could easily be, “I have read over 50 books in the last year.” Instead, a more emotional attachment would be how I’ve prioritized my love of reading over other activities: “I used to skip recess to read Harry Potter books in the library.”

Also, think about the connections between words. Combining “dancer” and “storyteller” could lead to a story about how I prepared for my lead dance role by putting myself in the audience’s position and thinking about the emotions and expressions I needed to convey to make the character believable. This is a more complex and juicy story than simply talking about how much I practiced for the lead role.

Part 4: Choosing Essay Themes from Your Word List

Again, the goal of this activity is to identify key qualities and experiences that you can work into a creative, unique, and authentic essay. Cross-reference your word list with the list of essay prompts that you have.

Let’s do a practice round together. Let’s use this prompt from the 2021-2022 list of Common App Prompts to guide our efforts.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

The term “personal growth” makes me think about how I came out of my shell in high school after enrolling in the band program as a flautist. This isn’t directly reflected in the experiences I’ve listed above, but that’s fine. I’m going to use the word list to identify words that resonate with that experience. Picking “musician” is obvious, but not deep enough. “Leader” is a good word because the associated experience of being flute section leader speaks to a key moment in my evolution in band, and it’s also an important quality for universities to see in me. Surprisingly, the word “dancer” also fits to this experience – dancing with my band friends at football games and school dances helped me overcome my shyness. Putting it all together, I have a pretty good story about how I enrolled in band to find a friend group and found that shared experiences of dancing together at events helped me become a bolder person. I was then well-equipped to lead the flute section for two years and help other freshmen flautists become more confident in themselves.

This, in fact, was a story that I turned into an essay and submitted to multiple universities, including UC Berkeley, which became my alma mater.

In summary, the 50 Words Activity can be a really great powerful tool to help you see the full spectrum of your experience and choose the best words and moments to tell your story. I hope you have a better idea of how you can express yourself in a creative, unique, and authentic way!

To learn more about me and my experiences in writing and editing personal statements (for college applications and beyond) check out my personal introduction post. Check out the other posts in this series for more help:

The College Application Essay Basics
The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise, Intentional, and Powerful Personal Statement

The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay

This is part of a series about writing more effective college application essays.
Previous post: The College Application Essay Basics

Once you know the application essay basics, you’re ready to begin working towards writing your college application essay. If you’re writing your first personal statement, it is important to fully plan and prepare for your essay before you write it. Follow these five steps to set yourself up for a smooth writing process.

Step 1: Reading the Essay Prompts
Step 2: Who Are You? Completing the 50 Words Activity
Step 3: Planning Your Essay
Step 4: Word Vomit
Step 5: Edit, Polish, and Edit Some More

Step 1: Reading the Essay Prompts

Your first job is to find all the essay prompts for the applications that you’re interested in. Most students will apply through the Common App, which provides seven prompts to choose from. Within the Common App, individual colleges and universities will also provide supplemental essay questions. You may also be applying through independent application portals which have their own set of essay prompts. As you go collect these prompts, make a note of which prompts are choice-related (for example, you choose one of the seven Common App prompts), optional (you don’t have to submit an essay for this prompt), and mandatory.

After collecting all the potential prompts, sort them into thematic categories. For example, “overcoming adversity” is a common prompt theme, and you may be able to respond to submit one essay on this topic to multiple applications. “Why are you interested in this university/major/program?” is another common prompt, and you may be able to write a basic essay on this topic and swap out details to tailor it to a specific application.

At this step, you can choose a Common App prompt if you’d like, but keep an open mind as you go into Step 2.

Step 2: Who Are You? Completing the 50 Words Activity

Each essay you write must be structured around a set of takeaways that you want the reader to have. For the Common App essay as well as other more creative, open-ended prompts, these takeaways should be key qualities about yourself that you want the reader to remember. To choose activities and experiences that will help you illustrate these qualities, I recommend you complete the 50 Words Activity.

Step 3: Planning Your Essay

Now that you’ve used the 50 Words Activity to organize your experiences, allow this list to guide you in choosing a Common App prompt. Select the descriptor words and associated experiences that are related to the theme of the prompt and can be woven together in a story. For more support with this step, check out my Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for the Common App Essay article.

You should also plan the story that you want to tell by creating an outline. What is the beginning, middle, and end of your story? Where do you add the details that you identified in Step 2? If it’s a story about you personally, do you have a character arc? You can check out my Narrative Structure for the Common App Essay article for more help.

Step 4: Word Vomit

Just start writing! Get all of your thoughts down without worrying about the word limit.

If you’re constantly worrying about where you’re writing the correct thing, here’s my trick: Write with proper paragraph structure. That means the first sentence of the paragraph is your topic sentence. The middle sentences are supporting sentences that grow that idea and provide more details. The concluding sentence sums up the thought and carries it into the next paragraph. Even for more creative narrative writing, starting with proper paragraph structure makes you aware of whether your ideas are being expressed or hidden. You can always make the writing more conversational and creative in Step 5.

Step 5: Edit, Polish, and Edit Some More

Once you have words on the page, it’s time to edit and polish.

Editing means reading the essay with a critical eye to find writing errors and determine the value of each word and each sentence. Find concepts that seem repetitive and trim them down. Find the ideas that haven’t been fleshed out enough and write some more. Follow my Writing Rules to help guide you on what to keep and what to remove or rewrite.

Polishing means to elevate the quality of your writing. How do ideas flow from one sentence to the next? Are there spots that are confusing to the reader? Are there seamless transitions between paragraphs so there are no awkward time jumps or idea changes? Does the first paragraph convince your reader to keep reading?

Switch between editing and polishing until your essay has reached a level that you’re happy with. The final edit should take care to remove all spelling and grammar errors and make sure that the essay is within the word count limit.

Throughout Step 5, ask for help from your teachers, friends, and family members to provide constructive feedback. Ask them to tell you what their takeaways are, and compare it to the intentions you set in Step 3 – you may be surprised at how your writing is perceived by different people! Also keep in mind that you may receive contradictory opinions or feedback that you simply disagree with, and that’s ok! If you trust your writing, don’t feel compelled to include all feedback into your next round of edits.

And those are the 5 Steps! Once you’ve been through the process once, you can usually start from Step 3 to plan and write your next application essay. Hope this helps, and Happy Writing!

To learn more about me and my experiences in writing and editing personal statements (for college applications and beyond) check out my personal introduction post. Check out the other posts in this series for more help:

The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise, Intentional, and Powerful Personal Statement