For the first official post in what I hope will become a regular blog for this site, I’d like to give some suggestions and writing tips to high school seniors out there who are struggling to find inspiration for their college application essays. I know from years of experience that there are a lot of procrastinators here in California who are still working on essays for their UC applications, which are due by midnight tonight. USC applications for students who want to be considered for scholarships are due tomorrow (postmarked by tomorrow if you’re snail-mailing your application).

Camilla wears a shocked expression
Camilla is shocked that you still haven’t finished your essays.

First, read my handout “Suggestions on How to Write College Application Essays.”

If you’re experiencing word constipation (aka “writer’s block”), here are a few suggestions to help get you unblocked:

  • Start with a “freewriting” approach; don’t jump directly into writing your ideas in essay form. Premature drafting is one of the most common mistakes young writers make. The effort of forcing your ideas into a specific structure makes you second-guess every word. Since your initial goal is to get your thoughts flowing, just let them come out naturally in whatever form they want to take—a disconnected paragraph, unpunctuated and ungrammatical phrases, a description of a scene, a narrative account of an experience, a list of possible topics. Worry about structuring your ideas later.
  • Write in a place that helps you focus and think creatively. For you, maybe that’s a quiet place, maybe it’s a place that is associated with many memories, maybe it’s a place with beautiful scenery.
  • Force yourself to avoid distractions like Facebook and games. For brainstorming, consider getting away from your computer completely and just writing ideas on paper. Hopeless Facebook junkies should have a friend or family member create a new password and keep it secret.
  • Stimulate your memory and creativity with sensory aids: the smell of your favorite food or a significant place, the sound of a song that’s especially meaningful to you. (Emo should probably be avoided, however.)
  • Tap into your passion and then channel it into your writing. Try singing and dancing (preferably not at random in public) or playing an instrument to kickstart your emotions.
  • Take a break and do something physically invigorating. If at some point you hit another wall, go for a walk, shoot some hoops, or fight with a sibling.
  • Talk it out. If you just can’t write anything, try talking through your thoughts and recording them, then listening to your recording and transcribing the good ideas and sentences.

Once the ideas and words start flowing, don’t interrupt them by worrying too much about staying within the length limits. You can always find things to cut out after writing a draft; what’s critical is that you have substantial, memorable material and that you not waste any words. In my thirteen years of experience helping students develop and polish their college application essays, I’ve never had a student who wasn’t better off taking this approach. It’s amazing how much extraneous and redundant material creeps into even a good writer’s first draft, and if you force yourself to trim your writing down, you’ll be left with a dense essay that packs a greater punch. (Also, I recently read a New York Times article suggesting that the Common Application‘s 500-word limit is not strictly enforced. Colleges are not notified if the essay exceeds the limit, though they’ll surely figure it out for themselves if you give them a War and Peace or a Moby Dick—or my favorite back pain-inducing epic, The Baroque Cycle.)

Finally, two points can’t be overemphasized:
1. Include concrete, specific details and examples. Anyone can barf up the platitudes and clichés about going to college that everyone has heard before. Your job is to convince the people reading your essays that your interest in their school, your passion for learning, and your aspirations are sincere. In writing, truth often takes the form of specific details, and BS (ahem, “boring stuff”) is often disguised as vague generalities. General statements are an important element of essay writing, but be sure to back them up with something substantial.
2. Write with feeling. Don’t go to Jersey Shore melodramatic extremes, of course, but make sure you express your passion for life and learning and that any personal stories you use convey real emotion. A tepid, ho-hum essay will be easily forgotten amidst thousands of other essays. Again, focusing on concrete details will help you achieve this goal.

Here’s another resource that might be helpful to those reading this post: A Washington Post article entitled “7 college admissions myths.” Pay particular attention to this part:

6. Essays don’t really matter much in the end because grades and test scores are so dominant in admissions decisions.

Don’t believe it. A poorly written, typo-filled essay can kill any application, and a beautiful piece can lift a student over another who looks similar on paper.

I hope this advice is helpful. As someone who has shared the pain of college applications with many students, I can empathize with your plight.

In the future, I might be available to give feedback on college application essays for people I’m not currently tutoring. Anyone who’s interested can contact me by e-mail here.

Good luck! Now stop wasting time reading blogs, and go get it done.

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