The college essay.
AKA, a huge weight on your shoulders.
When you’re at this stage in your academic journey, you may feel all sorts of pressures. Pressure from yourself, your teachers, your parents, your advisor. And then there’s also the comparisons you may accidentally be making. That is, with all your friends around you, who are also navigating the college admissions process.
To a lot of students, the college essay is a difficult and frustrating part of the process.
If you don’t feel like writing is your strong suit, this may be you.
The key to meaningful writing: authenticity
One of the biggest tricks to writing the college essay is to be yourself. And, like most things, that’s easier said than done. The thing is, for a lot of students “being yourself” on the paper doesn’t actually come naturally. In reality, many students have too many external influences muddying up their writing.
While having a support system while you write is great (and usually necessary), if you lean too much on it, you may end up with someone else’s paper. Brainstorm with your friends, ask your parents if they have any ideas—but at the end of the day, finding a topic with which you truly identify will make for a better paper.
For instance, if you’re constantly looking for examples or inspiration from already-written essays or drawing a style from specific writing styles, you’re not going to let your unique voice, perspective, and personality shine. If you’re always thinking about what you anticipate admissions people or the college want to read, you’ll always be roadblocking yourself.
Plus, think about it: if you’re aiming to imitate other essays, this will be apparent in your writing. Because, really, only a practiced, expert writer can entirely take on someone’s style or “borrow” someone’s story and get away with it. Writing that comes off as inauthentic likely won’t spark an admission person’s attention and show them how great of an applicant you are.
Instead of writing what they want to read, write something that resonates with you
Here’s another thing: college admissions people can see the difference between an essay written with the sole purpose of pleasing them vs. one written with authenticity and zest.
If you try to pick a topic that seems like the easy way out (but one about which you’re not at all excited), you’re not allowing yourself to tap into your full potential. And how do you do that?
By writing about something that you care about—something with which you personally connect.
While you want your essay to be entirely coherent and grammatically correct, this shouldn’t be your initial goal. If it is, you’ll get distracted by the constant urge to make sure each sentence is in perfect order and flows alongside the others. But this is not how to tap into your creative self and pull out the good stuff.
So how do I do this?
Engage in free-writing
A great place to start is on the paper, but instead of trying to map out the essay paragraph-by-paragraph, try simply writing what comes to mind. Trust me, there’s a reason why teachers implement free writing exercises in class. An excellent tool for anyone suffering from writer’s block, free writing is the freeway to unleashing your creativity. When you have a blank paper and little-to-no instruction, your mind can take you anywhere.
On top of this, when you don’t have guidance, you’re more likely to actually tap into something that’s meaningful to you—and that’s how you produce a touching essay.
You want your topic to be important to you—because when it is, it’ll write itself. It’ll speak for itself to the college admissions people.
Reflect on your life
To identify that topic, take time and energy to actually reflect upon the last decade or so of your life. Think about what you’ve enjoyed, what you’ve hated, what you’ve feared, what you’ve doubted, and what you’ve loved. Here are some areas to think about:
- My biggest challenge(s)
- The most important thing(s) to me
- Achievement(s) I’m proud of
- My biggest fear(s)
- Goals—future & current
- Strengths & weaknesses—& how I reflect these in my life
As you write (or type) your thoughts, reflections, memories, and ideas, take some time to pause and think about if anything particular comes to mind that has truly impacted your life. You know, the type of thing you’ll never forget—what has maybe altered the course of your life. Keep in mind: don’t rush this. And if possible, eliminate distractions. Honest reflection is only really possible if you grant yourself enough time, space, and effort.
And this doesn’t have to be school- or academic-related at all.
The wonderful thing is, once you’ve identified that topic that’s meaningful to you, you might begin to—horror of horrors!—enjoy writing the essay. And that enjoyment, in itself, makes the whole process so much easier.
Do you enjoy writing an essay when you have no interest in the topic? Um, probably not—and in this mindset, it can be so hard to figure out how to stop procrastinating.
When you write from a true place, you empower yourself to be vulnerable and honest—the bonus here is that this type of writing teaches you about yourself. It can help you identify areas you need to work on, and areas where you’ve improved. As a result, you can unlock a whole bunch of doors relating to your true passions and ideas, how you see yourself, and what you value.
It can definitely be a little uncomfortable to think this deeply—it can bring up all sorts of memories, emotions, and thoughts that you may not be ready to dissect. But once you dredge them up, slowly and surely, the writing will start to flow.
Say yes to proofreading
After you’ve done the hard parts and actually have what resembles an essay, it’s a great idea to have someone proofread your piece. Another set of eyes can do wonders, and you definitely want your essay to be as clean as possible.
When you’re spending a ton of time going over and over your writing, you may just start to go a little insane—and handing the paper off to someone with fresh eyes is essential for catching errors or confusing sections.
In reality, it’s often far too easy to doubt your talents when it comes to writing. That is, when you think too hard about what you should write, you risk spiraling into a deep train of overthinking and may end up in a panic.
But when you decide to just write and see where the page takes you, you may be surprised at how many stories, how many ideas, and how much creativity you hold.
Author: Lydia Schapiro