This week I started meeting with students to help them with their college application essays. It’s so interesting to see their different approaches to the essay. There seem to be two reasons that students are intimidated by this part of the process.
The first one is that they fear they don’t have anything to write about. That is never true. You cannot live for 17 or 18 years and not have stories to tell. The real problem is that most students think they don’t have anything “good enough” to write about. Also not true. This essay is very simply a story that captures who you are and how you’ve grown into the person you are.
So if you get stumped here, fear not. Think about those moments in your life that have mattered to you. When did you learn something about yourself that you hadn’t yet realized? Slow down and let those memories simmer. There is power there. Embrace it and then grab a pencil.
If your memories don’t help you, start thinking about the objects in your room that are meaningful to you. What do they symbolize? Why are they important? Why do you keep them? And then get writing.
The other reason students dread the essay is because they have something they very much want to write about but they fear other people will not want them to write it (parents, this is usually you).
I cannot say this strongly enough. If you feel compelled to write about something, you must write exactly about that thing. Remember, you do not have to submit that essay but you really should explore the idea of it. All other topics are likely to fall much more flatly on the page until you’ve written what you want to write.
This is where parents get nervous. What if family secrets are revealed? What if parents look like the bad guys? Here is where I caution everyone to just relax. Remember that these essays are not being submitted to the Washington Post. They will only be read by a handful of people. Quite honestly, if the admissions panelists remember your essay then you have done a very, very good job. Most of the essays they read are sadly quite forgettable.
Also, when students write these essays, they are rarely about what parents fear they will be about. They focus on the student’s journey and reactions. They are quite often amazing.
I once had a student who wanted to write about her relationship with her brother. Her parents said she could not write it because her brother faced unique challenges that were hard on the family. I never spoke to her parents so I don’t know what their specific hesitation was but I encouraged the student to write two essays. The one her parents wanted her to write and the one she wanted to write. (And then I encouraged her to share both essays with her parents before deciding which one to submit.)
Guess which one was better?
The first one was about her experience of giving speeches and it read like a list. Basically–I gave this speech, I gave that speech. I learned I can give a great speech.
The second was about playing a game with her brother. It captured a specific moment when her brother had a reaction that was hard to handle. The essay wasn’t about her brother but about her. There was absolutely no judgment in the essay at all–not about her brother, not about her parents, and not about herself. It highlighted a moment of clarity, a time when she was able to see her brother and herself in new ways. It was a beautiful story and I remember it all this time later–even after reading hundreds and hundreds of other essays. It is one of the few that sticks out in my memory.
The bottom line is that you cannot edit a blank page. So get busy writing. The magic of writing happens in revision anyway. You have at your disposal trash cans, erasers, and delete buttons. You alone have control over what you send out into the world. So just write, revise, and decide later what to do with it.