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Hate Your College Essay? Try Our 8-Step Fix

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Frustrated female student doing homework on laptop and holding a notebook

The realization might start to gnaw at you while you rewrite a draft, or slam into you while you are walking to class: I HATE my college essay! Now what?

As your elementary school teacher might have cautioned, hate is a strong emotion. It is no fun to feel like you hate your college essay at any point, especially as nerve-wracking deadlines loom. And, the point of the essay is to make the college admissions committee fall in love with you and your incredible personality and distinctive writing style. Your stomach drops and you lose all hope of a bright future….

Despair not. Although it is not advisable to make any final decisions about your writing based on this feeling, you can look into your hatred to show you something true.

Most often my students “hate” their essay drafts because they are posturing. The hate is actually BS-detection: They are not really saying what they wanted to, but what they thought they should. They are not using natural language, but stuffy vocabulary and contorted syntax. When they revise with honesty, the hate dissolves immediately.

This is why you should always read your work aloud to yourself to check for its quality. Your ears won’t lie like your eyes will. Your eyes want to fall in love. Your ears ring with truth.

NEED HELP WITH YOUR RESUME? WE'VE GOT THAT

And read aloud for a second opinion, too: to a trusted friend, guide, teacher, parent, coach. Ask for honest feedback. Where do you lose me? What engages you? Where do you feel this story shines most?

If you have not yet submitted your college applications for review, and deadlines have not passed, you can still always move (your essay) toward the light. It is worth it.

Once you decide to investigate what is causing you to feel this way about your essay, there are three main possibilities:

  1. The essay is actually awful. Throw it out. Be bold and without regrets about this. (But get someone else’s opinion first: You may just be sick of looking at it!)
  2. The essay is weak in places but actually salvageable, after you follow the steps below.
  3. The essay is actually nearly there but you can’t appreciate it any more because you’ve been too close to it for too long. Take a break. Then, follow the steps below.

The test: IS your essay salvageable? Is revision your best medicine?

To determine if you should pitch your essay or rehabilitate it, do the following:

  1. Do nothing. Pause. Rather than react, notice you are getting a STRONG inner message not to submit the essay as is.
  2. Watch and wait. Is there a little voice inside you that has a sense of what could be revised? Whispering what you really wanted to say? Reflect on its message, refresh your mind, then return to the draft.
  3. Sift for gold kernels. Reread your essay draft aloud. Listen for places that are honest, important, well said. Mark them with a highlighter or pen. Be positive and look for the good stuff.
  4. Repeat No. 3, and see if you agree with yourself. Confirm your hunches within, and listen to your gut.
  5. Reread your essay aloud, checking for what isn’t so good. Cut your text without mercy or preciousness. Listen for places that are dishonest, awkward, forced, wordy. Hack them out with red pen (this will give you pleasure, really) and if you are feeling very literal about trashing it, flush the worst parts down a toilet (but don’t clog it).
  6. Take the sections or even single survivor sentence that you still like, and (re)start your essay from there. Freewrite (stream-of-consciousness writing, without stopping or editing or, for hardcores, even picking your pen up off the page) for at least 10 minutes and see what your mind comes up with. This may be the essay’s true direction or redeeming idea.
  7. Be brave. Ask yourself, what would I have the courage to write here if I thought it would not be judged? If I thought the adcom team already loved me? If I trusted it was OK? Freewrite on that for at least 10 minutes. Reread all freewrites aloud to yourself or a trusted person.
  8. Rewrite. Map your new draft, put the new pieces together, and make sure the transitions flow. Edit as vigorously and ruthlessly as you can. Read your work aloud, repeating the steps above as needed. Then seek trusted feedback.

My guess is your real powerful college essay is right there, waiting for you to find it.

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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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