Cara, an incoming first year University of Washington student and newly published college essay writer, recently shared the following advice for high school seniors about the college essay writing process.
Step away from the prompt. Remember: college essays are all about helping admissions learn more about you, beyond just being a student. Before you get stuck trying to answer the specific question, think about what you want them [college admissions officers] to know about you first. Give yourself an opportunity to consider several ideas, and you’ll find one that flows.
I would wholeheartedly agree. HS seniors are accustomed to writing according to a teacher’s grading rubric, meaning answering each detail in the assignment, in order to earn the requisite points to merit the academic letter grade needed to apply to college in the first place.
Utilizing a similar writing process for a college essay, however, unnecessarily narrows a students’ view to what information they believe the prompt requires, thus, in essence, contriving an answer. Then, while “done” with the essay, has the student really, authentically, like Cara advises, told the admissions officer what “you want them to know about you”?
Write with feeling and detail
When I questioned Cara about the challenges of writing with feeling and detail, she responded:
It was challenging to put my feelings into words. I learned that I couldn’t just name the emotion, I had to tap into it and describe it in detail with lots of creative and expressive imagery. It was also difficult to convey my inner thoughts and feelings in a way so real, it left a strong impression on the reader and made them accurately experience what I had.
Cara, like many college essay writers, defined and refined her ideas through multiple drafts, taking feedback from multiple editors on our team in order to carefully select the words needed to clearly convey her perspective and thoughts.
Furthermore, I asked, “Did you find you needed time to process the emotion too once you tapped into it? Or was the writing process itself cathartic?”
I definitely took time to process the emotion because emotion can be conveyed in a number of different ways. And once I identified with my emotions, I gained catharsis. I felt calmer and got a better understanding of myself in the process.
Cara highlights the inherent, yet often overlooked benefit of the college essay writing process—understanding oneself—which is essential for making effective choices while in college.
I worried about limitations too much while I was writing because of the word count, and that prevented me from writing in-depth initially. I suggest students not be concerned about that; just focus on getting the message out! When recalling an experience, you need to give more than just a brief summary.
It’s natural for many students to make connections between their various memories, having lived their experience. However, the reader, who only knows what the writer tells us, can’t make such connections. Thus, with objective, experienced guidance students, like Cara, can write complete stories, with “depth”, providing necessary insights to the admissions evaluator.
As Cara says:
Don’t just recall experience, reflect on it!
Reflection, basically probing the “why” of an experience, investigating one’s motivation, challenging one’s conclusions about an experience is “reflection” as Cara defines. Often, students rely on trusted editors, who also know the unique character of teenage writers, to discuss and debate their memories as well as be guided through their self-reflection.
Lastly, Cara recommends:
Give yourself plenty of time to write; you don’t have to get it right on the first time! Also, be comfortable with getting your thoughts down in a loose writing format and having lots of drafts. Then, look at it with fresh eyes, organize, and repeat.
If there’s anything I learned from my experience, it’s that the more time you give yourself and the more you work on the essay, the better it will be.
I’d add that starting as soon as possible is also essential as writing one’s memoirs is a complex process, fraught with writer’s blocks, including the unexpected emotional breakthroughs. Essentially, students often grieve their childhood and teenagehood, readying for the next incarnation of their lives—adulthood.
For nearly twenty years, Jill and the Creative Marbles team have assisted thousands of teenagers in drafting their college essays and stand at the ready to advise any family and student, anywhere around the world. Contact Jill for more details.