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3 tips to begin your college essay

There are few things more intimidating than the blinking cursor on a word document when you have a looming deadline for a college application. Given that early decision college applications are usually at the beginning of November, you want to avoid that terrible blink-blink-blink of the cursor in late-October. This is why you want to begin thinking about your college essays well before then. So say it’s fairly early, like the summer after your junior year. You are considering prospective colleges, and you’re beginning to think about the application process fairly early on. What sorts of things do you think about when you begin thinking about your college essay? Here are five suggestions I’ve given to my students:

  1. Take time to pause, relax, and think about your life

Beginning (anything, really) is really the hardest part. This may be what led you to this article, but you shouldn’t rely on Google for brainstorming. Take a walk outside, and think about your life. Drink an iced tea and scan your memory to see if there are any patterns. Think about the 17-or-so years of your life as if it were a novel in English class. What sorts of themes emerge? What are the key symbols, conflicts, and characters? I suggest  some free-associative journaling from events in your life. Begin to think about what chapters, or portion of a chapter might be the most compelling story to tell.

  1. Consider your college essay prompts

Notice that I didn’t put this first. Why? You want to think about who you are, what makes you tick, and what distinguishes you from your peers, before you think about a prompt. You can tailor your own brainstorming about your life later. In January of 2018, the common application announced that they are reusing the same seven application essays prompts from last year. Read through these prompts and listen to your intuition. What question or questions elicit a response from you?

  1. Experiment with beginnings

Here are some ways to begin the actual writing process:

  • With a story
  • Reflect on a quote
  • Present a surprising statistic
  • Define a word
  • Present a problem.

Begin your writing freely and without too much regard for form or structure. Before, I’ve written about using three adjectives that you feel describe you. Maybe you want to choose one of those adjectives and ways in which your character relates to that word. If you can’t think of any words, here are some of my favorites: resilient, intuitive, quirky, courageous, inventive, empathetic, witty. Choose one of these and try telling a story about how you fit this modifier. 

Once you’ve begun your essay, ideas should flow more freely. Contact Mark if you want some help getting started. 

The beginning of the journey

ON THE EDGE of a city there was a tree and a street lamp. The lamp was lit each night by the night watchman. One night, upon lighting the lamp, a young man with a rucksack approached the watchman.

“HO,” said the watchman, “where are you going, boy?”

“Into the woods. For good. Or at least until something better comes up.”

The watchman was dressed in a driving cap, maize corduroy blazer, and checkered pants. He laughed through his wide smile and crooked teeth. Then he stopped laughing.

“Why? There’s nothing but beggars and thieves and bears in the forest…there is nothing beyond. Everything you need’s inside.”

“Even so,” replied the young man, “the town has nothing that I want.”
On the watchman’s face there played a shadowdance of the lamplight’s small flame. He looked like a face that appears in the shape of knotty wood.

“We don’t have beggars or thieves or bears here. What’s to want, boy?” the elder asked.

“There have been those that have begged away my youth; there have been thieves of my imagination; this town has bears that would rend my arms and legs. What’s to want? That is exactly what I’m going to find out.”

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.

The story of my first story

As part of a science unit in the third grade, we kept mealworms. We got them them as larvae and then they’d go to pupa, and eventually a beetle would hatch and we’d let it fly away. Mrs. Massip, my teacher, gave us an assignment to write a story featuring our mealworms as the main characters. I wrote a story I called “Detour to Germany,” about a plane of mealworms that crashed in the jungle en route to Germany. I was proud of the turn of phrase in the title, though I do not remember much of the plot. I think it had plenty of holes, and mostly documented how a group of mealworms try to find their way out of the jungle. One by one they found it harder to walk as they were transforming into pupae. I think they finally just submitted to the process, became beetles, then flew to Germany together with their own wings. Deus ex machina, I guess. It might have been a good children’s story if the subjects had been caterpillars. They are much more marketable than mealworms, and butterflies are much more elegant than darkling beetles. Then again, mealworms are less cliché, and an action story featuring mealworms becoming darkling beetles is grittier.