Using Improv Comedy to Tighten Your Admissions Essays

Recently we came across this terrific piece on a hypothetical college course that the author would one day like to teach. The course would require students to ruthlessly edit their own writing with every assignment they submit. We immediately circulated here, because it hit so close to home for the Veritas Prep team. Every day we work with clients to help them sharpen their ideas, and this exercise helps crystallize it perfectly.

The author, Jason Fried, says:

It would be a writing course. Every assignment would be delivered in five versions: A three page version, a one page version, a three paragraph version, a one paragraph version, and a one sentence version.

I don’t care about the topic. I care about the editing. I care about the constant refinement and compression. I care about taking three pages and turning it one page. Then from one page into three paragraphs. Then from three paragraphs into one paragraph. And finally, from one paragraph into one perfectly distilled sentence.

Each step requires asking “What’s really important?” That’s the most important question you can ask yourself about anything. The class would really be about answering that very question at each step of the way. Whittling it all down until all that’s left is the point.

We love it. And, believe it or not, this exact same exercise has been around for years in a seemingly very different discipline: improvisational comedy. Improv troupes everywhere know a game called “60/30/10” (also known as “Half Life” in some circles) in which two actors improvise a scene in 60 seconds. Then, they must do that same scene — hitting on all of the details from the first one — in 30 seconds. Then they have to distill that down to 10 seconds. Usually they’re challenged to then do it in just one second(!!), which is always very funny to watch.

While the high energy always makes this game a real crowd pleaser, what’s most impressive about it is that it actually works to make scenes tighter. As an actor in the scene, as you perform the 30-second version, you realize how much useless fluff there was in the initial 60-second scene. While it might have seemed tight and fluff-free the first time out, by the time you do the 10-second scene, you realize that you’re still hitting the important details without much of the time wasters in the earlier, longer scenes.

Just imagine how powerful it can be in writing, where you have more time to think things through and make deliberate choices than you do in a live, unscripted setting. Why not give it a try after you’ve written the first drafts of your business school application essays? Odds are, if a detail doesn’t make it to the one-paragraph version, then it’s worth revisiting that detail and asking yourself if it’s worth including at all. You’ll be amazed at how much sharper your essays will become as a result.

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