How to begin your college essay

We all have stories as unique as our fingerprints. The college essay is your opportunity to put your fingerprint on your college application; it’s your chance to introduce yourself, to tell something of your history, and to showcase your writing skills. How do you begin? This is where I have my students start:

  1. Begin with adjectives. Three of them. Maybe you’re clever. Maybe you’re adaptable. Maybe you’re thoughtful, energetic, or resilient. (I like resilient.) Think of three words that capture your essence. I know I’m quirky, insightful, and intuitive.
  2. Come up with examples of how you fit those words. At this stage I’d ask myself, how am I quirky? The more interesting and compelling the story, the better the chance it will become the theme for your essay. How am I quirky? I like to write “flash fiction” dramas featuring my favorite authors. I wrote a 358-word story in which one of my favorite authors, Fyodor Dostoevsky, gives an elevator pitch for his novel, Crime and Punishment. I have another one scene drama where Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus have an argument at a café in Paris. I don’t think they’re good for much, but they keep me thoroughly entertained. I like having my favorite authors in my head, and I like to imagine them engaging in conversation with each other, with me, and with complete strangers.
  3. Choose one of the stories in which you embody a word, and try to write a narrative. Begin in the middle of things. Don’t try to begin at the beginning. It’s too hard. Begin in the midst of the action. Where were you? Who were you with? What was being said? The best college essays have a unique and memorable first line. But don’t worry about that first line until later.
  4. Let it flow. There is plenty of time for revision. Just pour out words like you were in a conversation with a trusted friend. The more descriptive, specific, and surprising, the better. Don’t get hung up on grammar. This is the raw material of your essay. You can shape it later.
  5. What about the prompt? Worry about that later. Prompts are elastic, and you can manipulate your ideas to fit the question fairly easily. This also keeps it from being ordinary.

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