The first step in writing a strong college essay is to brainstorm some potential ideas to write about. Once that’s done, it’s time to start to sculpt your ideas into possible essays.
Essays? Plural? Yes! Often, it’s hard to know which ideas that emerged from free-writing and brainstorming exercises are going to lead to the essay you want; you have to try writing an essay based on one idea, and see how it emerges, and then maybe drop that idea for a while to tinker with another possible essay topic. Writing is a maddening process of trial and error. Sometimes we just need to sit down and force ourselves to write, and sometimes it is better to take a break for a day or two, so that we can come back to our writing with fresh eyes. Sometimes it takes time for an idea to marinate and grow in our thoughts, or it can take time for us to realize that our first ideas were a bit flat compared to some deeper idea that occurs to you later. Just keep playing with ideas and see if you can begin to build an essay around one of them!
The essay you wrote yesterday that felt forced and awful could become a great work after you’ve had time to clarify your thoughts on the subject, or that essay could get totally scrapped in favor of a completely different idea that springs from you in a more inspired and natural way.
At some point, you can see that one idea is turning into a winning draft, or that you have two or more potential ideas that are turning into first drafts of possible college essays. How do you know which one to pursue? How do you know how to continue sculpting your ideas into a successful essay? I’ve compiled a series of overall tips that can serve as goals for you to think about as you draft your essay(s).
1. Try to craft an attention-grabbing introduction that throws the reader into the middle of the action.
Take us immediately through an intense visceral moment. Try giving us sensory details that help us imagine what it felt like. Build anticipation. Say something that startles the reader, but, obviously, is not crude or offensive–something that might even sound strange at first, or something surprising that piques the reader’s interest in where this essay is going.
2. Maintain tight focus on a “small frame” main idea, where you show the reader a vital part of who you are, by describing an experience in detail.
Use your focus story to illustrate the main point you are making about yourself. This focus can come in many forms–it can be one central experience that becomes a way of illustrating something about you, or one object in your house that tells a story about who you are, or even a single activity, like the task of painting a barrel or changing a tire. It doesn’t have to be a self-revelation at the top of a mountain in India: many successful essays are written about mundane tasks or experiences that became transformative or helped you process a crucial aspect of who you are. I’ve read successful essays where the central event of the essay is when a student discovered something when cleaning his closet, or when a student spent a whole day smearing cement on a wall. You don’t have to have traveled to Fiji to have an experience worthy of your essay.
3. Showcase a part of your personality that is not evident from a scan of the other parts of your application. What is a unique part of you that the admissions people won’t know about unless you write this essay?
4. Show us something that means a lot to you.
Share your heart with us–your most fervent wishes, and how you chased those dreams, or a moment or experience that changed you and helped you grow into the person you are now, or the person you wanted to become. Whatever you choose needs to be a genuine glimpse at some vital part of who you are.
5. Most importantly, give details.
Details, details, details! Try to linger over your story: slow it down, add what you were thinking, how it felt, how it smelled, how it looked, what it made you feel like, as many sensory details as you can, so your reader can really be right there with you. Along these lines, avoid repeating generalizations in favor of telling a sustained, detailed story. Tell us how it felt, and, eventually, what it meant to you or how it changed, influenced, or solidified some vital part of who you are.
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