Straight-A students from some of the best high schools in the country become unhinged at the thought of crafting a 650-word essay in response to “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?” (2017-2018 Common Application, Question #3). It’s not surprising — very few students are comfortable writing essays, especially when a lot of responses are best made with a story: narrative essays are rarely written within the high school curriculum.
If you find yourself completely flummoxed by the entire essay writing process, you might turn to the aptly named, "Escape Essay Hell!," by Janine Robinson. "Escape Essay Hell!" incorporates a 10-step process that helps you extract defining qualities that serve as the basis for your story, explains well the difference between ‘show’ and ‘tell’ and then supplies the structure and tools to interweave showing and telling into a riveting essay that will bear testimony to your talents and, most importantly, to the real you.
If you have qualms about writing a narrative essay, fear not. "Escape Essay Hell!" supplies a generous dose of examples and intersperses its pages with hot tips on how best to show emotions, include dialogue, and even expose your vulnerabilities: “… Self-doubt and authenticity takes a lot of courage. For college essays, that’s good stuff.” (p.41)
Whether or not "Escape Essay Hell!" proves a divine deliverance, the most important piece of essay writing advice is to start early. We have students start the process during the summer between their junior and senior years. In the summertime, they’re relieved of the burdens of AP or IB courses, or extracurricular activities. They can think, contemplate, and experiment. The earlier their start, the better their essays are likely to become. Well-written essays take time; they also need, sometimes, to be put aside for periods of time and then re-visited.
Just get started no matter what. Turn off self-criticism. Don’t manufacture an expansive outline, just begin writing. It doesn’t matter if you ramble, free associate, or rant, just get it down. You can always edit and salvage the best.
Harry Bauld, a former admissions officer for Columbia University and the author of the classic book on the admissions essay, "On Writing the College Application Essay, Secrets of a former Ivy League Admissions Officer," calls writing the college essays a "rite of passage.” It’s the first time the student is asked to define herself and to ‘sell’ her image to a critical audience, the college admissions office. Additionally, these essays require, simultaneously, self-analysis with clear exposition, a task not easily accomplished by even the most seasoned adult writers. This kind of writing, by its very nature, can take a long time; this is another reason to get started early.
As with any type of writing, you should consider your audience. In many cases, your reader is the junior admissions officer. In all cases, this work is considered drudgery. Your reader gazes at dozens of these essays each day, Sundays included. If you make yours interesting, entertaining, and different, then you have a chance of engaging him or her. Once engaged, you’ve just gained a potential advocate for your application; that’s the essence of the exercise.
Keep in mind: it’s generally not the topic, but the execution of the essay that matters. Certainly there are topics best avoided: death of a pet or the big tour of Outer Mongolia are two. But for the most part, keep in mind the following:
1. Engage and entertain your audience — make him or her want more.
2. Keep it loose and relaxed, and always entertaining.
Michelle Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer, advocates ‘slice of life essays:' “The most effective essays take a small, seemingly insignificant incident and elaborate upon it… The best essays are ones that help admissions officers understand your character better and/or shed light on any factors in your background that have influenced what kind of person you are.” (Hernandez, A is for Admission, p. 123)
If the essay brings you off the page in three dimensions, it’s done its job. The rest is up to you.
Ralph Becker, is founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC (www.ivycollegeprep.net) and a resident of Long Beach. He has been counseling students for 11 years. He has a certificate in college counseling from the UCLA Extension, and has published "SAT* Vocab 800." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.