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Writing College Application Essays

The Secret To Writing Any Essay

black and red typewriter on white table
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Every college admissions consultant – professional and otherwise – seems to have a process for getting through college application essays. These processes typically contain a combination of well-worn advice and various steps that include brainstorming (and writing lists or random ideas), writing a shitty draft (I’m not sure if Rachel Toor is the original champion of giving students permission to write “shitty drafts” or if she just articulated it first, but I name her out of an abundance of respect), getting feedback, and then revising, revising, revising. Some also include steps intended to make space for self-care. Almost all of them provide examples of “essays that worked,” presumably to help students generate ideas about content or how to write their essays.

I’ve thought about these processes because I know how much stress these essays generate in students. I’ve sat with college applicants and listened to their complaints, been present for their anxieties, and tried to explain why these essays matter in holistic admissions. Some students are receptive to the idea of college admissions officers wanting to create interesting cohorts, composed of unique, 3-dimensional students. If encouraged to write freely, they often come up with startling topics that offer a glimpse of their worlds and the world through their eyes.

The students who resist seem to find the very idea of thinking of themselves outside of their neatly-managed package of grades, test scores, AP classes, and  extracurricular activities abhorrent; somehow unnatural. They can’t quite grasp the simplicity of the prompts and instructions from the College Board for the Common App Personal Statement (CAPS). They distrust quotes from admissions officers who’ve written books on the subject. These students are particularly prone to writing essays that are full of the clichés and insipid platitudes that have come to be associated with the CAPS.

When I was in 10th grade, in the halcyon days that preceded the absurdity of the Common Core, I dropped out of my low-performing public high school’s gifted/talented program. I was rebellious, stubborn, and easily bored: traits that did not endear me to the school’s predominantly Mormon student body and faculty. When I met with Ms. Falconer – my new English teacher – to get my transfer into her class approved, she told me in no uncertain terms that I’d be uninterested in the coursework. Rather than subject me to in-class discussions of that year’s reading list, she offered me the option of reading books that she selected, and writing essays about them – or anything else that I wanted to write about – during every class period. She also allowed me to sit outside the classroom (we had portables) so that I could focus on writing. She offered no other parameters. She provided no rules or instructions on how to write, no word minimums or maximums, and no prompts other than whatever these books – or my thoughts – provoked. Suddenly free from the conventional demands of compulsory education, I read and I wrote. I met her during lunch and other breaks and discussed the books she gave me and the writing I generated. Her comments, which I came to look forward to as much as her next book, were always directed at my thought process and my reactions. I left each meeting swimming in new ideas. Beyond writing, I became interested in Jungian psychology, dreams, theories of time, poetry, and the idea of “the muse” as inspiration. Were my essays any good? Well, they were written by a 16-year-old who wrote as frequently about his fascination with psychedelics and his crush on a certain senior girl as he did about Hermann Hesse’s Demian and Steppenwolf, so I doubt they were terribly moving. They were, however, personal, and Falconer’s approach – receptive, encouraging, and sincere –  inflamed my love for writing.

You’ve already guessed the secret. As trite as it sounds, the secret to writing is to write. That’s what all of these step-by-step processes are trying to get you to do: write down your ideas, observations, and thoughts without allowing your internal critic’s voice – the institutionalized demand that you define yourself in an academic or goal-oriented framework – to drown out yours. I know how loudly that critic can speak. I know how that voice can sound like your parents, a teacher, or someone who insists that there’s a one-size-fits-all process. I also know that by typing in a blank document or setting pen to paper, you will start to silence that critic.

Every time a student asks permission – “is it ok if I write about…,” “would it be clichéd if I wrote…,” “what if I want to write…” – I recognize that they’re either struggling to break free of that framework or they’re trying to negotiate a compromise that lies somewhere between writing a personal essay and writing something that they desperately hope will impress admissions officers, who represent just another group of judgmental adult authority figures.

I want students to stop asking permission. I want students to insist on the right to find and be themselves. I want students to take chances in their writing. I want students to write honest essays that interrogate their values, experiences, and what it means to be human. But I also understand what these risks mean to students; that their fear of writing the “wrong” thing makes it easy to hedge and emulate “essays that worked” or the tiresome, self-glorifying narratives about overcoming obstacles or inspiring others. My job, after all, is to help students write essays that will make them as competitive as possible as they take their shots at each of the schools they court in what they see as a zero-sum game. I, too, have to hedge, so I hedge by insisting that applicants make their essays as unique and personal as they can.

I can ask you to write 100 things you know about yourself, and maybe you’ll find it helpful. I can tell you keep track of your thoughts by writing them down in a notebook (or the notes app on your phone), and maybe it will spur an idea. I can give your topics my approval, suggest you consider writing about something else, or encourage you to explore the deeper aspects of your ideas. I can sit and brainstorm with you. I can explain what a prompt is actually asking. I can edit your essays and clean up your syntax, punctuation, and organization. I can point you in the direction of authors whose mastery far exceeds any found in “essays that worked.” I can try to be as receptive, encouraging, and sincere as my mentors were for me.

What I can’t do is force you to write. I can’t make you a better writer: that comes with time and practice. I can’t offer you guarantees that will vanquish the doubts that sometimes paralyze you. I can’t offer you freedom, because freedom is something you have to seize for yourself. If, for some reason, you feel like you need my permission for that, then you have it.

Use that freedom to create your own process.

Then sit down, silence your critic, and write.

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