Teeing up the College Essay: Where Do I Start? What is Important?

It is true that THE college essay often invokes as much dread in seniors as taking standardized tests; its aura holds high psych-out value and can lead to serious writer’s block. But if one steps back from its psychology and dutifully reviews the wide range of Common Application and Coalition Application questions, including the slow pitch with a fat bat – “Share an essay on any topic of your choice” – seniors should feel some relief in knowing that this piece of personal narrative writing of no more than 650 words is within your intellectual club house. So let us take a deep breath and tee this assignment by first knowing how to approach and think about it.

Preparation – Clear writing is clear thinking: The best essays are simple, personal and genuine and MUST answer the prompt.  Keeping in mind that you are ultimately addressing what you want colleges to know about YOU, the initial time spent on the essay is an exercise in thinking, not writing. To this end, you must first ponder the question. As my friend Bob describes it,  “Begin by considering how to respond to the specific question offered by the prompt: turn it over in your mind, condense it, expand it, capture your ideas in notes or pictures.” This thinking and pre-writing phase needs time to marinate and can happen when you’re just out walking or driving or hiking. Jot down ideas for the topics and think them through. Try to create a narrative map of your ideas.

Reflection – Your thinking and eventual writing must incorporate reflection: College admission counselors covet getting to know you better as an applicant through your essay. With this goal, keep in mind that the why (learning or insight) is ultimately more important than the what (experience). Reflective questions such as – what are you trying to convey?  what personal qualities, traits, and/or insights do you want to highlight? why does it matter to you? what do you want colleges to know about you beyond your grades, test scores, extracurricular activities? – will help you get to the essence of your story. Again, as you ponder your prompt, think about these reflective questions and map out your thoughts before you start drafting.

Voice – Be you: An effective narrative should convey your voice.  What this means is that your narrative has a tone, sound and feel that is not only authentic (translation – a thoughtful seventeen year old vs. your parents) but reveals something about your personality and chemistry. Honing your voice can happen during your revisions so do not obsess about this at the beginning. Just keep it in mind.

“Shitty First Drafts”: I love Anne Lamott’s chapter titled, “Shitty First Drafts” (Bird by Bird) in which she states, “All good writers write [shitty first drafts].  This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” Or as William Zinsser, the master author of On Writing Well, stated, “The essence of writing is rewriting. Writing is hard. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time…If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.”

So take heart that your first drafts will be rough and that revision is simply part of any effective writing. Zinsser’s hints: “Look for the clutter in your writing, prune ruthlessly. Be grateful for everything you can throw away. Simplify, simplify.”

“Fore” – Get Ready to Swing: Start thinking about what question(s) speak to you and work your thoughts while you go about your daily tasks. Record your ideas on your phone or an index card. Keep thinking and working them. Before you know it, you will be ready to put some ideas to electronic paper. Tee it up and yell, “Fore!!”