Tips on How to Write Your College Essay
Quell the demons of procrastination and embrace the better angels of getting it done. If you are a high school junior, now is a great time start thinking about how to write your college essay.
How do you even begin to write your college essay? It’s an uncomfortable place to be, and certainly one worth avoiding. However, if you’re there, drop whatever else you’re doing, open a new document on your computer, and write a sentence. Even a word. You’ll immediately breathe easier, I promise.
Because starting the infamous college essay is, far and away, the hardest part of writing it.
I procrastinated my college essay too
Once upon a time, I finished my senior year fall exams and headed home with visions of a blissful holiday break. Then I remembered I’d put off the very thing everyone had warned me not to put off, had counseled me to start the summer before, had highlighted as the most important piece of my application: my college essay. I kissed my stress-free vacation goodbye and entered DEFCON 1: Panic Mode.
Why had I wasted so much time under the sticky spell of procrastination? Because I was afraid.
Afraid I didn’t know myself well enough to write an essay that was any good, and certainly not one that anyone else would be impressed by. How could I cut through the bounding heap of essays being written by my peers all over the country, all over the world? How could I possibly distinguish myself?
Many students answer that question by writing essays full of drama. Stories of near-death experiences, world travels, and Mother Teresa level volunteer work. But I didn’t have any of those.
Stay true to yourself
What I wish I knew then: college admissions officers, like all of us, crave authenticity. When they read a college essay, they’re less interested in the wow-factor of what you have done. Instead, they are much more interested in the truth of who you are yourself.
But you’ve heard a million times that all you need to do is be yourself. So many times, in fact, that you’ve probably stopped believing it.
Well here’s the fact: no one else in the history of being has lived a life exactly like yours. And no one ever will again. You are, whether you believe it or not, a unique and shifting story alive on the earth. That in itself is exciting enough to fill a thousand and one essays. A simple tale honestly told will always be more touching to read than a whirlwind of adventure that buries what is personal under what you think others will find exciting.
Plan ahead and start early
So, how to begin to write your college essay?
First of all, start early. Divide the writing into small goals that are easily accomplished. This will keep your stamina up and your stress levels low. The sooner you start, the smaller these goals can be.
The best essays tend to revolve around a single image, a moment in time that has stuck to your imagination. That’s a great place to begin your brainstorming.
Allowing yourself to be totally unpolished, write out a list of those moments that often circulate in your imagination — whether they’re memories that keep you up with anxiety or soothe you into peace, whether they make you laugh or bring you to the brink of tears. Remember, they can be simple. In fact, those usually make the better essay.
Maybe it’s what your grandmother’s hands look like, or a piece of advice your Dad has always told you, or that time you were sent to the principal in the fourth grade. Write them all down. And, most importantly, keep them specific.
If the writing itself is what’s holding you back, a great trick is to break out the voice memo app on your phone, and just start talking. Let the words flow without any chains of judgment holding them back. You never know what kind of idea will pull you forward, or when it will strike. As thoughts begin to flow, keep track of them on your phone or in a notebook: the faintest ink is stronger than the best memory.
Narrow your list and find what resonates
Once you’ve got a working list of images, memories, and thoughts, read it over and over and keep track of which ones make you feel a stirring in your mind, belly, or heart. Remember that if you’re not moved by what you’re writing, there’s no chance your admissions reader will be either.
The next step is to ask yourself why a particular moment makes you feel the way it does. Answering that question will be the work of your essay.
This process, moving from image to feeling to explanation, is how most of the great writers work. It keeps the writing specific and truthful and meaningful to anyone with a mind and heart.