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We all know it when we see it (or think we do).  But do we know how to use it, and how not to?

By Ben Feuer

Bullshit, or BS, as it is affectionately known, seems to be undergoing a kind of renaissance lately.  Respected schools like USC Marshall conduct studies which are then misinterpreted and used to make clickbaiting articles (like this one!) proclaiming to the heavens the value of powerful sounding vagaries.

A lot of people (including some of my clients) enjoy proclaiming with great confidence that they 'don't do bullshit'.  A lot more people (including some of my clients) announce that everything they are saying is 'just bullshit', then say it anyway, as though that was somehow going to improve my impression of the bullshit they are about to say.

We all know too much BS is a bad thing.  So what value (if any) does it have in an essay?  Are we all writing it, to a lesser or greater degree, and some of us are just better at it than others?

The answer is no, but if you're convinced the answer is yes, nothing I'm about to say will change your mind.  For those of you willing to learn a little bit about how language works, read on.

BSing consists of saying things you do not believe are true.  In your essays, you should not be writing things that are not true.  Therefore, there should be no BS in your essays.

That's the black and white answer.  Now for the shades of gray.

Some people have truths that, for one reason or another, simply MUST be evaded or omitted when they write their essays.  An essay is not meant to be 'full disclosure', it is meant to give an accurate portrait of you as a candidate.  So if there is a non-representative but utterly damning fact about you, well, it might be a good idea to choose not to talk about it.  BS?  Of course not.  This is just common sense, and most people intuitively get this.

Going deeper into the rabbit hole, things get more complicated.  Some candidates have a story they're dying to tell but no space in which to tell it.  BS allows them to shift the 'question' to suit their packaged answer.  You see politicians do this all the time.  It doesn't work for them and it will not work for you.  Answer the essay question, even if it means giving up on your 'favorite' story.

Some people have big, complicated ideas and work histories and very limited word counts to explain them.  In these situations, you must simplify things.  Simplifications are not BS -- if done well, they clarify a point you're trying to make, not obscure it.  The problem comes when they are done poorly.  The fact is, it is really hard to make a big idea simple without destroying it.  Simplifications that rely on jargon "make you sound stupid", to quote the Marshall professor who commissioned the study.  Simplifications must use simple, plain language that speaks to emotions rather than to facts.  

Once simplified, stories can often read rather abrupt and lifeless.  This is where detail comes into play.  Detail makes stories feel real and lived-in, so details (metrics, dates, facts) are vital to telling a compelling story.  This is a key way readers unconsciously distinguish BS, however well written, from reality.  Even if it means you have to say less, say it with enough detail to be convincing, but not so much as to be overwhelming.  Pick and choose your most valuable details.

Hopefully this helps draw something of a line in the sand distinguishing BS from effective (and necessary) self-promotion and self-explanation.


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