Having talked with a fair number of rising high school seniors over the last six weeks, I am coming to the conclusion that these days can be the “dog days” of the college application process. This is especially true for those who have identified target schools and are struggling to get their arms around their essay assignments!
If this sounds like you, the good news is you recognize the need to be thinking and acting upon your college applications in a timely manner. That recognition, however, doesn’t lessen the anxious avoidance you experience—or the nights of fitful sleep—or the extended periods of time you spend staring at an unresponsive keyboard. The words and the critical messages your essays convey will not materialize out of thin air. You can’t will a good essay to completion!
I’d like to offer a few suggestions, then, that can help you work through the creative blues to points of clarity, if not inspiration, as you get started in the essay writing process.
- Resist the temptation to buy the “best college essays” book. It will only contribute to the “paralysis by analysis” you are experiencing. The essays you will find in those books are not only well-written, but they also fit the context of someone else’s life story. The genius for your essay rests within you, not an essay someone else has written. Focus on your own storyline.
- Identify key themes and/or messages you want to convey. Are there two or three things you want to make sure the readers of your application know about you? In answering this question, go beyond the obvious. Don’t restate information that can be found elsewhere in your application. This is your opportunity to provide insight and interpretation. Coming to grips with the objective of your message will help you find the most effective form for presenting it.
- Reflect on your most memorable life experiences. How have they shaped you? A group of students just returned from a two-week tour of Europe with great pictures and wonderful stories. Two years from now when they begin writing their college applications, they should reflect less on where they went and what they saw—and more on how some aspect of the experience changed them.
- Find the story within the story. Quite often, metaphors are effective in framing key messages in college application essays. If you have identified themes or messages to be conveyed in your application, think about vignettes or moments of revelation or clarity that speak to the bigger picture of your developing perspective. What were you feeling at the time? How did you react? What has been the impact of that experience on how you see yourself in the world?
- Reveal—don’t tell. It is best not to recite the facts of your life. Instead, take the reader between the lines to understand you, as a thinking person, better. Not long ago, a parent member of an audience who also happens to be a college professor asked me to remind college applicants that colleges value diversity of thought in their classrooms. The essay is your opportunity to reveal that element of diversity that can be found uniquely within you.
- Keep a pen/pencil and paper beside your bed. You might wrack your brain all day trying to come up with clever ideas, but invariably the best stuff emerges in those hazy, subconscious moments just before you drift off to sleep! If you can, push back the sleep long enough to jot down your new inspirations.
- Read-a lot! Quite often, essay writers are consumed with a myopia that limits their ability to understand their place in the world in which they live. Break out of that shell by reading news stories and editorials. Better yet, read books that make you think. It’s not too late and biographies are great sources! I have found increasing inspiration from the life stories of people who have risen from relative obscurity to make significant contributions as thinkers and doers.
- Take advantage of the time you give yourself by starting early. Resist the temptation to write a college essay in a single draft. Good writing—and editing—is a process. Manage it well to your advantage!