This time of year, Write Well Austin gets a lot of tutoring requests for high school seniors who are in the throws of preparing college applications, and need to write the dreaded college application essay. Writing a personal essay is scary, but writing a personal essay that is ALSO supposed to get students into their top college choice is even scarier.

Some would say…terrifying.

It’s no wonder, really. College essays ask that we be truthful about our challenges and successes, about our personal lives, and it can feel difficult for us to talk about ourselves in this way.

Difficult, and also VULNERABLE.

Furthermore, college essay prompts are often designed to dig into our personal history a bit. In response to these deep-digging essay prompts, many student writers find themselves wanting to write about something of great personal importance—the time a parent or aunt was sick, the ways in which martial arts changed their self-perception, the loss of sibling, the adoption of a sibling—but they feel overwhelmed as to where to start.

“How can I take such a hugely personal story,” many high school students wonder, “and do it justice in 500 words or less?”

Below are a few first steps designed to help high school seniors get started on that daunting—but very worthwhile—process of writing a meaningful college essay:

  1. Having trouble generating ideas? Scribble! I know we live in a world of text messages and various other forms of instant gratification—but the college essay writing process is in part so difficult because it challenges us to slow down, and take the process step by step. In the spirit of embracing the PROCESS, get a timer and have it handy. Put your college essay prompt (or several prompts) in front of you. Then write as many ideas as come to mind in response to a given prompt. If you have more than one prompt from which you are choosing, write for 5 minutes per prompt. If you are focused only on one prompt, write for 10 minutes. Write fast. Scribble. Don’t worry if your ideas are stupid and worthless and boring and not possibly worthy of anyone’s time and attention. Just write. NO ONE HAS TO SEE THESE IDEAS BUT YOU.
  2. Which of these ideas is any good? Tune in to your gut. Look back over your scribbles. “Which of these stupid, embarrassing ideas are worth anything?” you might be wondering. “Which of these topics will get me into college?” Fair enough, but I want you to do this: Imagine that you are writing this essay simply because you want to write it. (I know—you really have to use your imagination for this one.) You are not going to send it anywhere, you’re just writing it because—and trust me on this—it will be a rich and meaningful experience. IF ALL THAT WERE TRUE, which topic would you write about? Which ideas would you expand upon? What do you FEEL, in your gut, is something you are curious about PUTTING DOWN ON PAPER AND FURTHER EXPLORING? This is the topic or idea worth sticking with, no matter how much another voice in your head is being mean to that idea, saying it’s stupid, saying no one in the admissions department will want to read this story of yours. Instead, be brave.
  3. Where go from there? Create a messy (and I mean MESSY) first draft. Find a comfy place to work—in a coffeeshop, or in your room if you concentrate better in a quiet environment, or with friends who are also going through this process. (One thing a lot of writers don’t tell you is that it isn’t always fun or productive to write alone. Sometimes it is, but for a lot of us, it can feel nice to engage in this challenging activity with other human beings nearby. If you chose to be alone, I recommend instrumental music on your headphones, and a little chocolate.) Once you’re comfy, give yourself 30 minute chunks of time. (Again, set a timer. The standard kitchen timer will be your best friend during this writing process, if you let it.) Now, for those 30 minutes, your only task is to write the messiest first draft imaginable, without regard for word count. You’ll deal with word count later. The first draft is where you write ALL your ideas. You do not hold back, because that is the one thing you could do that I would say is actually kind of dumb. Why stop your ideas before they even leap from your brain to the paper? Let them out! Sometimes ideas start off silly and get more awesome with time. Write, and write. Then take a 10 minute break. Then return to your essay and write for another 30 minutes. Repeat cycle until you have completed a messy, disorganized, perhaps even poorly-written first draft.

There are more steps in this process, of course—because now you have to decide what to keep in the essay, what to erase, what to expand on, what to rewrite.

But guess what?

YOU GOT THROUGH THE HARDEST PART. Getting started is CONSISTENTLY the part of this process that can bring students nearly to tears, and you just decided on a topic and then wrote a whole first draft. Building on that first draft is the easy part.

(Well, it isn’t easy. Writing is rarely easy. Don’t we wish! But it’s being brave enough to dive into the topic that feels near and dear to you, that feels emotionally true, that is incredibly difficult. And you just accomplished that. So good job.)


Find yourself needing something more? For one-on-one writing support—whether getting started or revising your college essay, or seeking tutoring for English class or writing in general—contact Ashleigh Pedersen at writewellaustin[at]gmail[dot]com. Not an Austin local? We offer Skype and Facetime tutoring, as well.


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