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  • Bentham Team

Getting Started on Your College Essay Part 1: Some Advice Before You Begin

If applicants are smart, late spring or early summer is the time to get down to drafting the college essay. The essay will go through several revisions, and your trusted readers (teacher, counselor, cousin who went to Brown, admissions consultant, etc.) will often need a few days to get down to reading your draft carefully and making thoughtful comments. In the fall, you will be busier than you have ever been. You will likely be taking a heavy slate of courses to belatedly bolster your transcript, and these will demand a lot of your time. Plus, you will be perfecting your activities list, creating a resume, and tackling dozens of supplemental essays - the questions that each particular college poses, which have to be written as carefully as the Common App personal statement. They’re shorter, but they still demand strategic, engaging, and well-crafted responses. Each will go through a few drafts.

The hardest thing about writing, of course, is getting started. We avoid the tension and embarrassment that come with writing, even for published writers. When you have to write about yourself, as a teenager, to a formidable institution you desperately want to like you, that’s some serious pressure. We’re going to talk about effective strategies for getting started in a comfortable, low stakes, brainstorming sort of way; you might even find it fun and exciting.

Myths about writing and college essays

First, let's dispel a few myths about writing and the college essay:

Myth 1: Writers begin with a flash of inspiration

The primary excuse we give ourselves for not writing something as important as the college essay is that we don’t feel inspired. We hate to write when we’re uninspired, we tell ourselves, and we’ll get started when inspiration strikes.

In fact, a writer is simply someone who sits down, opens a file, and writes, whether they are inspired or not. Will their writing be good at first? Probably not. You just need to get started, and then you will see that what you have written is not true enough, not specific enough, and you’ll try again. Or you’ll go off-topic, and maybe then discover that your “digression” is the beginning of a great college essay. Writing is like fishing, when you’re getting started on something. You have to keep casting until your hook finds the fish. When something seems true, reveals something unique about you, or makes you laugh, you’ve found a way into your essay.

Myth 2: A college essay must show off what a great student and person you are.

Do you enjoy listening to people tell you how wonderful they are? Do you enjoy talking with a person who needs to always put themselves in the best light, never being silly, petty, or inappropriate? College essay readers want to be entertained as much as you do, and they want to make a real connection with the speaker, as you do. We make that connection through jokes, revealing embarrassing moments, confiding a hurt or a fear, or sharing an intense enthusiasm for something. In your essay, you are only trying to do the same thing you do when you talk to your friends: be interesting, and make a connection.

Myth 3: A college essay must be written in a formal manner.

The admissions committee wants to get to know you, so write the way you speak - without curses and slang, of course.

Ways to get started

Most students make the mistake of sitting down and starting the essay at the beginning, and then plowing through to the end. If they show it to a friend or a parent, they might very well hear that the essay is wonderful (and it probably is nice, just not interesting or honest enough to stand out in a field of thousands of essays). After that, they polish that draft for a couple of weeks or more before finally showing it to anyone with college essay experience, like a trusted teacher or counselor.

This is where the heartbreak begins. Often, the reader suggests they cut almost all of it, or try a different essay altogether, or enthusiastically say “I think this paragraph has a lot of promise; why don’t you build a new essay around that.” The trusted reader is most likely right, and a lot of time has been wasted, the deadlines are getting closer, and the writer now has to regroup and reconceive the essay.

How do you avoid getting stuck in this miserable situation? You show an expert reader a very rough first draft early in the process, even if it’s not complete, so you can be steered in the right direction and not waste a lot of time. First drafts are never very good. Don’t be afraid to show it, and don’t be discouraged if you get critical feedback. That’s what you want, because it makes the essay better.

Later, when you’re revising, you can strive for perfection.

Embrace false starts

Instead of starting at the beginning, you should start with informal, process-oriented writing, in order to experiment with a few different approaches until the germ of a powerful essay is discovered. Make a few awkward casts and start fishing. Learn where the fish are by learning where the fish aren’t.

In our next blog, you’ll learn some effective writing exercises that will get you started on a unique and interesting essay. Please feel free to contact us for assistance!


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