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This Advice on Writing College Essays This Summer Will Surprise You

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Teenager's legs in striped stockings showing amidst a field of flowers in summer.

As a college essay writing coach, I have some counterintuitive college essay writing advice for you: Don’t put a hardcore focus on writing your college essay during the summer.

First, do yourself a favor, and have an actual summer – like you see in the movies. Not just an extension of school and school stress: That’s fake summer. Make a list of all the things you associated with summer as a child, and let yourself relive some of them, even being bored.

Why? Because reprieve is good for stamina, creativity and focus and you’ll need all of those come fall. Also, summer is glorious, so why would you spend it all worrying about the future?

Everything leads to everything, and there is nothing better for your perspective on yourself and your sense of “having something to write about” than immersing yourself in real life: your REAL interests, your REAL questions, your REAL connections.

Go for it. Devote yourself to something you love; surround yourself with positive stimulants, whether that is long walks, adventures in cuisine, new books or a library. OMG the LIBRARY, have you been there? It’s a ticket to every world, every subject, every overdue fine … don’t get me started!

Hang out with people you love and who love you, get to know new people. Take a risk you can’t usually take because of confines of school year. Or take on a job: It doesn’t have to be a magical job flossing the teeth of unicorns on a sustainable farm in the Veldt. It’s fine to scoop ice cream, work in retail, or cut lawns--any work.

But what will I write about if I just have a regular summer? (You might ask).

To write a good college essay, just pay attention to what’s happening, how you think and feel about it, and what those thoughts and feelings tell you about yourself. Take notes, reflecting on who you are (in these situations) and what matters to you. Remember to treat this as a privilege rather than a chore – someone is going to want to know. If you do put pen to page, write in the way you actually think.

And, fear not, as a college essay coach, I’ve read hundreds of essays, and great essays can be about anything: about cooking a family meal with abuelita, about a speech therapist, about babysitting: in one case, how the family that a student worked for was so different from her own that she learned a good deal about herself and about economic class, some of it painful.

You never know where good writing and topics will come from; don’t stalk a topic, but let one reveal itself.

If possible, do something you are really passionate about this summer; it will fire up your mind. You never know where experiences or connections that will later be beneficial will arise: life will give you your material, but not it you’re looking too hard to find it.

School –- and, in particular, college applications – can feel like the opposite of real life. When you commit yourself to experiences, you gain information about yourself and your path, about the kind of life that fills you up, turns you on and keeps you learning. When you’re applying to college, admissions readers want to understand that part of you. In the summer, you have the time – and an obligation – to find that out.

This summer, talk to your parents, guardians or closest adults about how involved they will be in your application process, and in what ways.

Practice good, clear, communication with active listening. This is a life skill, like eating an ice cream cone in the sun before it melts. Decide in conversation how much or little you’d like your guiding adult to be part of your essay writing. Consider your approach to the college process, such as schools you’re honestly interested in and why, and allow yourself to dream; make a list of priorities – yours, your family’s, and where they overlap.

Find some way to counter stress, now or in the future.

Ever tried meditation, martial arts, yoga? Long walks without a cell phone? Simple breathing or visualizations? These methods do much more than reduce stress, but can open you up to a balanced perspective on your life. It’s a great weapon for senior-year frazzles, and a place from which to start your writing process. You can get ahead of your anxiety, and into a brain state conducive to creativity. Summer is a great time for just trying things.

And, get off your computer, get off your phone.

These are magical creations of our time, and you’ll need them in the fall, but they take your eyes away from the richness, beauty and sweltering truths of summer. If you write reflectively or journal or even start your college essay properly, try doing so in a notebook. Meanwhile, be in reality: It’s where we all start and end up. And your reality is what will give you that elusive “something distinctive” to write about.

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Written by Sara Nolan

Educator, writer, and college essay coach, Sara Nolan loves that she now hears on national news what she’s seen for decades: that teens aren’t taking any BS, and that they have something to say. Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., she teaches teens to write personal essays for college admissions and beyond (and feel good in the process) through Essay Intensive: Write the Essay of Your Life.

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