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Preparing to Write Your College Essays without Actually Writing

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Jennifer Simons

Written by Jennifer Simonson June 7th, 2022

My interest in the college application process stems from my own experience navigating the college process mostly by myself, albeit with supportive but hands-off parents. I was fascinated by trying to understand how colleges know how many students to accept and why. My first job in admissions at Barnard College allowed me to supervise joint programs with the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Manhattan School of Music, while also running the tour guide programs and traveling throughout the American Midwest. In my subsequent role as Associate Director of Admissions at Connecticut College, I ran the Transfer and Return to College Program for non-traditional students. It was at Connecticut College where I got my first taste of international recruitment. Subsequently, I served as the Director of International Recruitment for ten years at Tufts University, where my focus was Asia. One of the highlights of that time was leading a three-week recruitment tour for 30 admissions officers across India. One of the aspects I loved about admissions, specifically international admissions, where there is a great deal of joint and team travel, is that you learn so much about other colleges and universities, and you realize that colleges are not competitors per se but rather institutions in search of the right student, just as students are searching for the right college. I moved from Tufts to take on the Director of Recruitment position at Northeastern University, an institution I admired from across the Charles River for a long while. And in the midst of all of this, I served as a college counselor at the Ramaz School in Manhattan for a few years, and that is why I am adamant about students fostering a positive relationship with their school counselor as they navigate this process.
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by Jennifer Simons, former admissions officer at Tufts University The best way to get your college essays written is of course, to write. They are not going to write themselves, as your mother might have yelled at you, through your closed bedroom door. Famous authors tell you that they do not, and therefore you cannot, wait for inspiration to strike. The muse is fickle, they report. Writers tell you that you must make a daily practice of writing. In her seminal book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron explains that the first thing a creative person must do, before they even roll out of bed, is devote themselves to ten minutes of longhand writing with only one goal: putting pen to paper. There is no doubt that it makes sense to set a schedule for yourself and to write. But, I know that the best way to do something isn’t always the best first course of action. The best way to save money, I’m fairly certain, is not to spend so much of it, yet I sit here with a seven dollar bubble tea (iced grapefruit, no extra sugar and yes, extra bubbles), looking longingly at a fat pile of books that I could have gotten from the library but I bought instead. We don’t always do what’s best. But, I have a novel, no pun intended, suggestion. To get yourself in the mood to write, take a break from writing. Instead, for now, read and listen. And then, do nothing. Tell your mother that you have permission to take a break from writing so you can listen to podcasts. No, not podcasts about writing or podcasts for writers, but podcasts that tell stories, because that’s what you are ideally going to do in your essays. When you are done listening and reading, you are going to tell a story. Listen to The Moth, which is a podcast of true stories told by actual people. Listen to This American Life, which consists of stories told around a central theme. Listen to books, particularly to autobiographies; hear someone telling their story aloud, in their own voice. Next, read. Start with essays. No, your college essay is unlikely to compel the admissions officer to compare you to Joan Didion, James Baldwin, or David Sedaris, but reading those brilliant essaysists is likely to get you into the writing zone. Not to mention the fact that you don’t want to be the next anyone or emulate others; you want your readers to get to know you, exactly how and where you are. Remember those books I told you to listen to? You can read them as well! Michelle Zauner’s memoir Crying in H Mart is one of the books I bought instead of taking it out of the library and I have zero regrets.  Lock your phone in a box and read something that doesn’t connect to the internet. Finally, after all the reading, and the listening, and the decidedly not writing, sit and be still. Continue not to write. Don’t think, “What should I write for my essay?” When thoughts such as these enter your mind, shoo them away, like you shoo away your anxious mother, but gentler. Some might call this meditation and maybe it is, but I’m simply suggesting that you allow yourself to think about the books you’ve read and the podcasts you’ve listened to in a way that feels nurturing and kind and not all, YOU MUST WRITE THESE ESSAYS OR YOU WILL NEVER GET INTO A COLLEGE. Use this time to reflect. Try to “hear” your own voice in your head, and hear it being compassionate. And eventually, you can start to write. But first, listen, read, and be.

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