college essays

Commonly uttered phrases at this time of year in the homes of high school seniors include:
“I don’t know what to write.”
“Nothing I write seems to sound at all different from what any other student would write.”
“Every sample essay I’ve ever read sounds so amazing, how am I ever going to sound that interesting?”
And my favorite: “I’ve never had a hardship or challenge in my life, what am I going to write about?”

Sound familiar?

College essay questions can sometimes feel like Miss America Pageant questions when students feel the pressure to sound like “the most perfect human being who has ever existed.” So, instead of writing, students sometimes freeze, put off their work, and generate a lot of unnecessary anxiety. While some or all of these statements might be true for a student, my experience as an educational consultant tells me that these students often give up a little too soon or think they need to be someone they are not.

So, where do you start when you sit down at your computer and see a blank screen staring back at you?

  1. Take the pressure off being someone you’re not. Yes, there are some pretty amazing accomplishments and life events that some students will have experienced and can possibly write about in a college essay. But most students do not have that story to tell, and you shouldn’t expect that from the start. As a great Buddhist monk once said, “as soon as you compare, you lose.” So keep the focus on what makes you uniquely you.  The best topics are often as something as simple as “being a klutz” or “a stargazer,” “a lover of comic books” or “the slowest runner on the soccer team.” These types of college essay topics allow your voice to be heard. No topic is better than another; the best college essay is one that sounds like you, not your friend or a kid you once heard about – and they definitely don’t read  like a parent wrote it!
  2. Eat dinner. Despite the chaos of weekday schedules, make time to sit down to a meal with your family. I’m not suggesting that you print out the Common Application essay topics and hand them out to everyone at your dinner table, but sitting down to have a conversation and stir up some old family stories is never a bad way to generate some ideas. Toss out an idea to help things flow, like “besides being hardworking or a good student, how do you describe me to your friends or coworkers?”
  3. Simplify the essay questions. What is really being asked is often a lot simpler than what appears when you first read the essay prompts. Admissions counselors need to know more about who you are, how you think, and what you value. While they don’t ask these questions directly, they are essentially what is underlying the typical college application question. So, if you’re not coming up with ideas after reading a question a few times, try to translate the college essay questions into much simpler terms.
  4. Free write. Step back to elementary school when your mom or dad might have used a timer to signal when an activity needed to end (e.g. video games or television) and do the same for writing your college essay. Don’t worry about paragraph structure, punctuation, or grammar. Just write like you’re filling out a journal or writing in a diary. I suggest you spend about 25 minutes free writing; it’s the perfect length of time to make it bearable, but productive.
  5. Use a microphone on your phone to capture your ideas. Some people think faster than they type. If that’s you, try speaking your ideas into a microphone while you’re out for a walk, sitting on your bedroom floor, or just after you’ve had sports practice and your endorphins are charging. Play your ideas back as you type up an outline or brainstorm on paper.
  6. Create an outline. It’s easier to write when you have a destination in mind. So, what’s your point? What do you want your reader to know about you? If your reader had to sum you up in one sentence, what would you want them to say to their colleagues? You want to have your final destination in mind from the very beginning. For some students that means creating an outline for a 3-5 paragraph essay with a grabby beginning, two body paragraphs where you show your readers what you mean, and a reflective conclusion. I always suggest starting out the outlining process by writing down the one sentence that clarifies what you want to say in your essay. This exercise will often spark the path to a very strong outline, showing you where you will take your thoughts.

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Written by Kara Courtois
Kara Courtois is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Kara holds degrees from University of Notre Dame and University of Portland; she completed her graduate coursework at Teachers College, Columbia University and Steinhardt School of Education. Prior to joining College Coach, Kara was a senior admissions officer at Barnard College. Visit our website to learn more about Kara Courtois.