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What To Do If You Haven't Started College Essays

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young man of mixed race shrugging shoulders

Have you, like thousands of students all over the country, waited a bit too long to start your college essay?

Did you procrastinate? Did wishful thinking assure you that a brilliant perfect essay would just appear at the right moment like Sentence Clause (yeah, that kind) from a proverbial chimney?

Now you have to crank out an essay, brilliant or not.

If you’re reading this, you’re not actually screwed. You have to adopt a game-time mindset, and get on with it.

Anyway, all working writers will tell you that good writing is tricky; there’s no one best timeline. And some people work well under pressure and a deadline’s dangling sword. So now that someone has to be you :).

The writing process benefits from having time to walk away and see it with fresh eyes. You have to create opportunities for objectivity in a much narrower window. I’ll show you how in process steps.

1. Read Some Successful Sample College Essays

First. If you are totally clueless about the genre or keep trying to force yourself into stiff formulaic approach, take a breath, and read maybe five strong sample essays (I suggest the following by my students Joel, Antonia, Alexis, Aya and Jerry). Don’t go down a rabbit hole of endless reading, or read with the goal of imitating someone else. Instead, read to get a sense of the range of topics and treatments of those topics, so you will be liberated into YOUR originality and brilliance. And so you will be willing to GO DEEP, like the best essays do. Do not use this as yet another procrastination tool. :)

In fact, maybe you waited this long because being vulnerable is KINDA SCARY.

Welcome to the club!

2. Find a Topic

You need to find a great college essay topic, about which you can (as I said) go deep in a unique way, and be brilliant about the one thing you know more about than anyone else: you and how you perceive your world.

There are many tried and true ways to come up with a great topic. You should brainstorm like mad, using every tool available to you, and freewrite liberally to pull up material from the vast memory library of your mind.

3. Adopt a Structure Blueprint

Having a structure in mind gives you bowling alley bumpers for the ball you are rolling (reaching a favorable audience with your admissions essay), making you more likely to get a strike. Many successful essays use more or less the following structure but if a different structure happens organically for you, there is no reason not to go with it.

Try This College Essay Structure

First, tell yourself your best essay is hiding inside you just waiting for an excuse to get out.

Take a moment to meditate on your TOPIC. I suggest choosing an essay topic that is a small thing,out of which you can make a bigger deal, or a small detail that leads to bigger drama. Then try setting it up like this:

  • Open with engaging anecdote, scene, or experience – include at least one memorable image.
  • Provide backstory in moderation, include 5W’s (who, what, when, where, why)
  • Add the rest of the plot of your story or description of experience
  • Explain where that experience left you (emotionally and otherwise?)
  • Reflect on how it helped shape you (your values or character).
  • Speculate on where this might lead you in the future (academically or otherwise).

Now, Actually Start Writing

Here are six suggested stages for your writing-process. Plan short breaks between each stage. Depending how crunched for time you are, this might mean anything from a few days to an hour.

  1. Write a crappy, flowing draft with your genuine unfiltered thoughts, thorough story, and abundant details.
  2. Cut and revise to make a less crappy draft with details taken out that are not key to the story or message.
  3. Add reflection; make sure you are “showing” the reader, not just “telling” the reader something.
  4. Get a smart unbiased reader or read it yourself wearing your “pretending-I-am-an- objective-editor” hat.
  5. Incorporate that feedback.
  6. Tight editing round! Don’t hold onto ideas, phrases or manners of speech that aren’t working with the central point and voice of the essay NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU LIKE THEM. If it doesn’t serve the essay, it’s out.

Final Stages

  1. Hook & never let us go: Double check that you have a first line that hooks and a last line that won’t be easily forgotten.
  2. Mind Gaps: Look for any gaps in information or places where the flow is confusing.
  3. PROOFFREAD TWICE ALOUD (if you get my point).
  4. Are your values or core trait clear? What do you most want to show your reader about you in this essay? You can’t say it all. Make sure the essay focuses on exploring, analyzing or showcasing one of your traits, qualities or values that you feel proud of, that makes you you. If you’re still not sure, ask someone else. If the reader doesn’t know what you’re trying to say, trust them and start over.
  5. Avoid cliches like the plague. Avoid strictly SAT words, especially PLETHORA. Gag.
  6. Simplify any complicated long sentences which may accidentally lose the reader as the reader attempts to navigate the oh-so-many complex things you attempted to include in forementioned sentence, if you follow me.

Stuck? Try These Hacks

  1. Dictate your essay aloud into a voice recorder, then transcribe.
  2. Dictate your essay aloud to a friend or family member willing to write down everything you say. Then, return to process.
  3. Pretend you are already beloved by the admissions officers; you’re old friends sitting around trying to outclass one another with well-told stories about how your life ended up as it is, today, with you caring about exactly what you care about. Listen to music you love, and write down your story as if you are telling it to your bestie.




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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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