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  • Bentham Team

Getting Started on Your College Essay Part 2: Some Exercises to Get You Started

Here are a few exercises to get started

As we said in the last blog, the objective of the college essay is to make a deep connection with the essay reader, so they remember your essay and want to be in your corner. The key to this is to make your writing intimate, specific, and focused. Here are some exercises to get you started in the right direction.



Looped Freewrite

Using the prompt “I remember”, set a timer for five minutes and just start writing. Do not stop writing. Every time you get stuck, just write “I remember” over and over until a new idea comes to you. After five minutes, read over what you’ve written and circle a word, phrase, or sentence that you’d like to write about. Set a timer, and write for five minutes about what you circled. Underline a word, phrase, or sentence in that, and write again.


Freewriting is a good way to get past the internal censor who tells you it’s not good enough. If you just keep writing, ideas and memories will come. It’s crucial that it is timed - if you know that you will only have to write for a certain number of minutes, you’re more willing to get started and keep writing. Other prompts you could use are “I want to write about”, “I wonder”, “I want”, “I hate” or “I’m proud of”. These prompts dredge up raw material and help you clarify your values, ambitions, and history.


Five Objects

“No Ideas But In Things”, William Carlos Williams declared in his poem “Paterson”. Ineffective essays tend to be largely abstract and cliched. A phrase like “I always persevere and do my best” might seem strong, but we can not see, hear, smell, taste, or touch anything in that sentence, and we’ve heard it in thousands of essays. If you told a story about dropping your DNA model just before turning it in, and what you did next, you are showing us your perseverance, rather than just telling us, and because your story is unique to you, you know your essay will be unique if you tell this story.


Using specific nouns and verbs and personal objects helps the reader to connect with you. On Sunday mornings when I was a child, we would lie around on my parents' bed and my father would blow his wooden duck calls to amuse and amaze us. This creates a more vivid image than merely saying “I come from a loving family”. When you use specific objects or scenes, you communicate more than what is in the words. My father’s duck calls suggest something about his habits, his class, and his character. You want each word to convey information in more than one way.


A wonderful exercise from Ethan Sawyer, The College Essay Guy, asks you to list five objects that represent yourself that you might put in a box. Describe the objects and what they say about you. You could also think about others this way - list the people who have been important in your life, and next to each put a single object that you associate with that person. A cigar box, maybe, or a particular perfume, or a racing bike. Describe the object, and then reflect in writing on what the object says about the person. Sawyer advises that as you write about these objects, you should try to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is where great writing comes from, and you connect most profoundly to a reader where you’re vulnerable.


Our minds are never purely linear. Each memory sends us off on a train of associations, and this makes life inside our heads interesting. As you do this exercise, lots of memories and feelings will come to you, and your heart will fill up with things to write about.


A Memory Told Two Ways

Almost every college essay alternates between creating scenes from your life and reflecting upon what they teach us about you. In this exercise, you first write in detail about a memory from early childhood, staying in the present tense. For example, “My father has taken me to see a friend who raises chickens. I lock eyes with a rooster, and he begins to kick the dirt…”

Stay in the present tense in the child’s point of view, not explaining or reflecting as an adult would. Then write it again, but as an adult. Write from a distance about this event in your childhood. Reflect on what it shows about you as a unique individual.


Create Five Opening Paragraphs

Before you start your essay, try writing five opening paragraphs that all begin in medias res: in the middle of a scene. They could be different openings for the same essay, or for five different common app essay prompts. Often our first idea isn’t our best idea, so explore a few options before you start.


If you feel you could benefit from some truly expert guidance as you draft your essays, contact Bentham Admissions to learn more.


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