Few high school assignments are more difficult than the college application essay, especially given the immense amount of stress and pressure surrounding it. Here’s a secret about writing and stress: creativity requires freedom, and freedom requires security. Pressure makes it hard to create something great. So, the very nature of the college essay makes writing it incredibly difficult.
The beginning stage of writing has nothing to do with words. Rather, it’s about cultivating a mindset that frees your creativity. Here’s your guiding question: how can you approach this task in a way that encourages you to write? Instead of stress and anxiety, how can you feel excitement, curiosity, passion, and inspiration? Hard work will be involved, but these feelings are your essential fuel if you are to create something you will enjoy writing and others will enjoy reading. This post will help you reframe your approach to the essay so you can liberate your creativity and feel more inspired. (And maybe even have a little fun!)
1. Leverage rhetoric.
Here’s a crash course in rhetoric, or the art of persuasion: in any rhetorical situation, there is a speaker (you) and an audience (the college admissions officers). The speaker’s purpose is to engage the audience, getting them think or feel a certain way.
The trick is: you can imagine a different rhetorical situation that makes writing easier for you. Yes, you will eventually submit this essay to college admissions officers, but you don’t have to start by writing for them. What if you were writing a letter to your grandparents or to your best friend, sharing with them how you’ve grown? Obviously, you’d write to your best friend differently than you’d write to college admissions officers. But you can shape your words for the admissions officers later. Right now, your task is to get inspired – choose an audience that inspires you to write.
2. Reframe the college essay.
Again, the goal is to reframe this task in a way that encourages you to write. Let’s look at how to reimagine each part of this rhetorical situation:
Take the admissions folks out of the equation. Write to someone you want to address. You could address a close friend. Your uncle. Your soul. Your younger self. Your future self. Your parents. Your favorite author, musician, artist, athlete…
Why start writing as yourself? You’re writing about yourself, but what if you wrote from the perspective of, say, your dog? Or your phone? Try writing in the 3rd person! A different vantage point will reveal yourself and your life in a new way, allowing you to make discoveries. While the final draft will likely be from your point of view, this is a great way to explore.
Stop worrying about how this essay will or will not get you into college. Throw that thinking out! You’re beginning a major transition in your life, leaving childhood and entering adulthood. This essay is an opportunity to step back and reflect on who you were, who you are, and who you want to be. Thinking deeply about the story of your life helps you understand yourself better. Imagine that one of your high school classes was “Life and Becoming a Person.” This essay is your final project for that class. Tell your story.
Your topic should showcase something essential about you. Think about the values, beliefs, or traits that you consider essential to who you are. How do you look at the world? What do you care about? Why? Asserting your values signals to admissions officers that you know who you are and what you stand for.
Think about your past experiences or activities that allow you to discuss your values, beliefs, or traits. And these experiences can be small! One of my college essays compared two dinners I had with my dad: one was at a fancy steakhouse, the other was a bowl of lettuce with canned tuna that we shared in a cabin without power. I explained why I treasured the tuna salad dinner more, and used it as a metaphor for how I approach life.
The college essay is more about who you are than what you’ve done. You don’t have to have cured childhood hunger while juggling 80 knives when you were 12 years old. Instead, express your story in a unique, honest way. Presenting yourself as a reflective, authentic human being is far more compelling than showing off something you did at 16 because you needed an experience you could write about for your college essay.
Another approach is to ask: how do I showcase my authenticity, courage, and strength? Try writing about something that makes you embody those traits as you write it. Consider a topic that makes you feel a little uncomfortable, vulnerable, intimidated, or challenged. What if your essay began with, “I’ve never told anybody this… ” ? Or, “My greatest fear is…”? That task takes courage and vulnerability. (But don’t betray yourself by sharing something you don’t actually want to share.
3. Redefine success.
It’s not a good idea to measure your essay’s success by your admission result – there’s too much luck involved in the admissions process. More importantly, that definition puts success out of your control. So let’s redefine “success.” Adopt a criteria for success that is within your power. Here’s one you can try: “to write an essay I’m proud of.”
Building a helpful mentality is the first step of writing, and I’ve offered some creative ways to jumpstart this process. As a takeaway, here’s a chart for getting started, pre-filled with silly examples. Write in your own combinations and see what feels good! Remember, this is just to get you going – if you’re feeling less stressed and more motivated or excited or intrigued, then you’re on the right path!
Note: This post offers helpful ideas for starting the writing process, regardless of the assignment. While this post deals with the college application essay, you can easily apply these tools to any writing task or creative challenge.
Are you applying to college for the first time or considering transferring? Make the college application process less of a bear. Enlist the help of a college application coach during any part of your process, whether it’s academic and extracurricular advising, school selection, managing deadlines, or essay writing.
Want to read more about college admissions? Take a look at some of our previous blog posts here: