College Essays? Don’t Panic!

Don't Panic

 College Essays Looming?

Don’t Know What to Write?


Don’t Panic.

Colleges are looking to your essay to get to know you – what’s important beyond your transcript and your SAT scores and your recommendations. Think of the essay as your chance at street art to express yourself, or a chance to do improv on something you’re passionate about, or a way to give a tribute to someone meaningful in your life.

Want to know what it’s not? It’s not your chance to “sound smart” or tell them how awesome you are or brag about your grades and all your accomplishments. The folks reading these essays – they’ve been there, done that, and can recite those essays in their sleep. Think about it. These folks read essays all day long. Seriously, all day long. Be kind to them. Write something interesting, funny, captivating. Something that keeps them awake, makes them smile, maybe touches a nerve. Write something that makes them want to know you. The kids they want to get to know – those are the ones more likely to get that fat acceptance packet.

Where to Start?

  1. Get organized. How many essays do you need to write? How many schools take the Common App? How many have custom prompts? Create an inventory of which schools require what and organize it. Chances are you’ve got a lot of overlap. Get it organized and you’ll probably discover there’s less work to be done than you think.
  2. Use technology. I love Trello for getting organized. Think of it like electronic sticky notes. Google drive or Dropbox are essential for keeping your drafts. Save your drafts! You may have something brilliant there.
  3. Brainstorm first. Write second. How do your friends describe you? What are you passionate about? What’s the most important thing the college should know about you? What are all the things that make you you – hobbies, family connections, passions, musical talent, theater, sports, talents? Gather all your data first, then figure out how it all fits together.

Ready. Set. Write.

The thing about writing is, well, you have to sit down and write. Even the most successful writers in the world complain that it’s the sitting-in-the-chair part that’s usually the hardest.  Get in your comfiest clothes; have a little bowl of your favorite foods; turn OFF your wi-fi; repeat, turn OFF your wi-fi. Start writing.

  1. Writing Prompts.  Those brainstorming questions are great prompts. Choose one. Close your eyes and think about it for 30 seconds or so. Set a timer for three minutes. Then put your fingers on the keyboard and start writing – write continually for the entire three minutes, whatever pops in your head. When the buzzer goes off, repeat the process with the next question, then the next, then the next.  Think of it as your written doodles, the random thoughts and images that define you. This is your raw material, the DNA of your essay.
  2. Find your story. Remember the organizing, where you captured all the essay prompts, found any overlap, and figured out how many essays you need to write? Go back and look at those. Chances are, the DNA of your doodles from the writing prompts slot neatly into those broad categories.
  3. Write the “shitty first draft.”  Well known writer Anne Lamott calls it your “shitty first draft.” Whoever the writer – Stephen King, JK Rowling, every writer on your senior year lit list – all of them share the painful reality of the shitty first draft. Just get it out there, on paper, on the screen, with all its mistakes and cliches and points that sounded so great in your head but look so stupid on the screen. Don’t procrastinate and come up with excuses then complain that you can’t do it and you’ll never get in anywhere so why even try. Just write the shitty first draft already. We know it’s going to be lousy, so write it and move on. I promise it gets better.
  4. Don’t Worry About Word Count.  In your first drafts, don’t worry about going over the word count. Get it all on paper first, then edit and revise and tighten it. But get it all out there first. Don’t hold back!
  5. Remember all the writing basics you’ve learned. Your essay is a story, so write it like one. It has a character the reader is pulling for (hopefully that’s you), conflict, resolution, a universal experience, and a conclusion. Even if you’ve forgotten a lot of the basics from that 10th grade composition class, remember these:

Show. Don’t Tell. Put your reader in the story; don’t just tell them how it happened. And remember that specifics are always better than generalities.

Words matter. Choose good ones. Your essay is not the place to show off your massive vocabulary derived from SAT prep. Choose words meant to speak to your reader, not words chosen to impress her.

Avoid cliches! And be really careful with metaphors. If you’ve heard it said a million times, so has your reader. Cliches are a lazy writer’s crutch, and that’s not you. If you can create some snappy and meaningful metaphors that really make your essay sing, by all means use them. But make absolutely sure you’re not the only one thinking they are so brilliant (because the not-so-brilliant ones always end up in a BuzzFeed piece about the stupid stuff written in college essays.) Which brings us to the final tip…

6.   Don’t Go It Alone!  Get Help!

Writers do their best work when they solicit and receive input from others. Think about it. You know exactly what you meant when you wrote that string of words that became a sentence, which then became several sentences which eventually became a paragraph. So chances are, you probably aren’t the most qualified soul to determine if it really says what you think it says. Ask teachers, friends, parents, siblings – the folks who know you and have your back – to read it over and give you their thoughts. Then – and here’s the really important part – listen to what they tell you.  Consider their input. Maybe try a few different revisions. If you still think they’re wrong, follow your gut. But remember, they’ve got your back, so chances are they’re making a good point.


You’ve got this.

You’ve done the hard stuff – high school, AP classes, the SAT (how many times?), all-nighters. This essay is your chance to write about you. Showcase your personality – the quirks and the bright lights and the crazy bits and all.  This is your chance to tell your story the way you want it told. Make it a good one.


Want a bit of extra help? Just click here. I’m happy to lend a hand.