All-Purpose Process To Writing Your College Application Essays (And Anything Else you'll ever want to write)!
Recently I was asked to lead a series of workshops for high school juniors and seniors on how to approach their college application essays. As I organized my thoughts I realized that this process was applicable to any sort of substantial writing we ever have to do, from a middle schooler's book report, to a senior's family memoir, to a young artist's first script or novel. ("For that matter," I thought, "you could apply this technique to ALL CREATIVE ENDEAVORS OF ANY KIND--" but then my head got so big it slammed into the ceiling, so I decided to limit myself to writing.) Some of this stuff I've touched on before, but this is the first time I've put it all together into one easy-to-use "How-To!" Let me know what you think.
The biggest mistake most people make when they sit down to write their college application essays is that they sit down to write their college application essays. They try to write the finished product, to somehow circumvent all the work and struggle, self examination and insight, the searching, thinking and feeling that goes into getting a good story on the page. This just leads to staring at a blank screen feeling worthless, useless, and talentless. Because it can’t be done!
You CAN’T write your last draft first.
You CAN’T write a good essay while counting words.
You CAN'T write a revealing personal statement without getting personal.
You have to loosen up and find it before you can tighten up and write it.
The first step is to know your audience. Admissions officers aren’t cold hard judges, waiting, arms folded, lips pursed in a superior sneer, to catch you in a mistake. They’re friendly people who just want to meet you. It’s their job to find students who will succeed and be happy at their schools. They can’t possibly interview every applicant, so they assign these essays as a way to get to know you. To see who you are, and how you present yourself. The only question your essay really needs to answer is, “So, who is this kid?”
But how do you say who you are in 650 words?
Brainstorm. Well… obviously. But not everybody knows how to do it. You don’t sit at your computer and desperately rack your brains for something to write about, grasping onto the first thin reed of an idea and then closing your mind to everything else. The object is to open your mind up. Let your thoughts and feelings bluster and rage without logic or purpose and jot down every idea you have, good or bad. Don’t decide what to write, don’t concentrate on words—DON’T THINK! You’re not trying to figure something out. You’re trying to find something.
Think of yourself as a character in a book. (Though this one is a bit college-app-centric, it holds true for any autobiographical writing.) It’s hard to recognize the patterns of our own lives while we’re living them, but if we step back and look at our lives as a story, and ourselves as the main character, the important moments become clear. Ask yourself “Who is this character and how did he get that way? What is she into? What sparked that interest? What were the big events in his or her life and how did those events change them?” Sometimes the best way to get closer is to distance yourself.
Freewrite. Simply put, freewriting is the best technique to get you writing without worry, thought, or censorship. And best of all, without delay. This technique is so amazing and productive it deserves an entire seminar of its own, but in a nutshell it involves WRITING WITHOUT STOPPING for five minutes.
The first step is to give yourself a prompt. Don’t use the application prompt; come up with one that is personal to you. It must be an incomplete sentence, written in the first person, and preferably centering on emotion rather than intellect—“I first fell in love with orthodontia when…” Particularly good prompts often start with “I want…” Whether it’s our characters or ourselves, our wants define us. If all else fails, write about your fear of writing. “The thing that scares me most about this essay is…” Remember, you’re only wasting 5 minutes.
Now finish the sentence and CONTINUE WITHOUT STOPPING FOR FIVE MINUTES. Don’t consider, don’t correct, don’t judge and DON’T STOP. Not even for a second. Let your mind wander where it will, but keep circling back to your prompt. If you draw a blank, write that you have nothing to say. If you’re distracted, write how annoying that barking dog outside is. Write what an !@#!&!! Charlie, The Writing Coach is for making you do this, but DO NOT STOP WRITING UNTIL YOUR TIME IS UP.
Now read what you’ve written. Look for the seeds of a revealing story—phrases and insights that truly reflect you, places where you’ve learned, places where you’ve grown. This is the gold you’re panning for. I’ll bet you discover things that you would never have found any other way. Certainly not in five minutes!
Get away from your desk. A change of scenery can often give your brain the kick in the pants it needs.
Do something physical: run, skateboard, hike… I bike ride whenever I’m stuck on a story. Physical exertion really gets the ideas flowing. Be sure to bring a note pad or cell phone so that you can record your ideas as they come.
Read the essay prompts before bed and see if your brain works anything out while you sleep. Seriously. This happens more often than you’d think.
Take longer showers. I know it’s environmentally suspect, but man, it works. It probably has something to do with being half-asleep.
There are thousands of ways to get the juices flowing; these are just some that have worked for me. The idea is to fool your brain into relaxing. To get it to stop judging and have fun. To play. Because brains at play are really the only ones that ever think of anything new.
Transition To Tight!
Okay, now that you’ve found your topic it’s time to start tightening. We don’t want to go all the way to tight yet, but we want to move toward it.
Scribble out a rough outline to give you an idea of what order things go in. This is particularly helpful when you’ve got a lot of ideas but can’t figure out your main thesis. Something about putting your ideas down on paper, in order, lets you see your what your brain is trying to say. Note: Don’t waste any time or mental effort on making this a “proper outline” that your teachers might approve of. This is your outline, a tool for you to use, based on your brainstorming, to help you write more easily. No one else will ever see it.
Bomb through a first draft as quickly as possible. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. It’s kind of like freewriting, except that now you’re following the rough map of your outline, based on the ideas you had brainstorming. Feel free to use whole sentences and sections from your freewriting. And here’s the key thing: expect it to stink! First drafts always do. So enjoy: it’s much more fun (and much faster) to write badly than to try and write perfectly, and you don’t have to worry because you know you’re going to rewrite.
Tighten Up (At Last)!
Before you do anything else, make a copy of your rough draft and put it safely away on your hard drive. That way, if you accidentally screw something up, you can always go back. Okay, now you can edit. But don’t start counting words or fixing grammar just yet. First, make sure you’ve told your story well.
Edit for theme and story, remembering that even a science report is a story with a beginning, middle and end. If there are any parts that seem beside the point, cut them out and see if they’re missed. Focus on emotional moments and see if they need more emphasis or detail (use all 5 senses). And make sure to be clear what your main character (you) has gained from the experience you’re depicting.
Now check grammar, and count words. It will be long. That’s okay. You had to write all those extra words to get to the good stuff. But now that you have, be ruthless and cut like Sweeny Todd. As a fellow writer once told me, “You can cut a lot and still have it.” And remember, you still have your long draft tucked safely away on your hard drive if you go too far. I actually love this part; it’s amazing how much better things read after you’ve cut your favorite lines!
Finally, show it to people you trust and see what they think. Don’t do everything they say, but do everything that makes sense to you.
Now there’s only one more step:
Submit your essay, get accepted to the college of your choice (or an "A", or that big studio deal), have an amazing life, get married, have kids, and laugh cruelly as they have to go through all of this themselves!!