What is the scariest part of writing an essay from scratch?
Take it from the King of Horror himself, Stephen King:
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.
After that, things can only get better.”
The first draft of your college essay will be unspectacular - and unspectacular is perfect!
If, at first, no particular topic jumps out as the perfect essay topic, don’t worry. Most people don’t get so lucky!
Plus, some of your best potential subjects might be the ones that won’t readily come to mind. In my experience, the best way to unearth some old memories or kickstart your creativity is through a guided brainstorm.
If you're looking for a place to begin, The New York Times has a great list of questions to help you get started on the right path!
Put Words on the Page
After you get a few ideas down, here's the good news: you’ve already done the hardest part of your essay!
When it comes to college application essays, the idea is paramount.
If you enter the writing process with a strong idea, your exact words and phrasing can be sculpted and revised until they accurately reflect the quality of the idea.
Now you just need to get the words down - they don’t need to be pristine, in fact, they don’t even need to necessarily be good.
The idea is that as you get words on paper, as you edit, rework, and rearrange, you will naturally hone in on the “right words.”
Odds are, your first draft will come out better than you anticipate. However, there’s no way of knowing that until you take that leap of faith and start writing. For guidance on how to start specific essays and specific prompts, one-on-one guidance from an experienced mentor can be an incredibly effective form of assistance.
As for a general approach to starting your essays, you need to be able to trust yourself and the writing process .
You’ve formulated the idea, so you know that you have the right words somewhere. Now, you need to commit yourself to trial and error in order to tease the proper verbiage out.
Remember that traditional isn’t better when it comes to your college essays.
Chances are, when you apply to college you'll have little to no previous experience writing college admissions essays. Most of your formal essay writing experience will have come from English class.
This time, though, you’re not trying to decode Fitzgerald’s prose or explore the themes of 1984. The goal of a Personal Statement or supplemental essay is to give admissions officers a sense of what makes you you .
You want your personality to shine through! And it doesn’t hurt if it’s an entertaining read - these officers are reading hundreds of essays every week.
Don’t be afraid to add some humor , experiment with less formal language, or open with a unique introduction .
Don’t be afraid to pick a topic that’s out-of-the-box , or to pick a topic that’s seemingly “boring” and explore it through an engaging or unexpected lens.
If you need proof that ~almost~ anything goes as an essay topic, check out this excellent essay on Costco that got its author into 5 Ivy League schools and Stanford.
One final note: With every ounce of strength in your body, force yourself to avoid procrastination.
Writing an essay is hard enough on its own. The last thing you need is another excuse not to write.
As novelist Peter De Vries once wrote,
"I only write when I’m inspired, so I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at nine o’clock."
The writing process is long and tedious, and spontaneous bouts of motivation can be few and far between. Sometimes you just need to tell yourself to open up the computer and type!
It’s natural to put pressure on yourself to produce a perfect first draft.
As a result, though, you’ll get caught in the minutiae, constantly self-editing and deleting.
Don’t fall into this trap! It’s okay for your first draft to be too long, too short, too ridiculous. What’s more important is to get your ideas down and give yourself material to work with. It won’t all be usable, but chances are, some of it will stick.
A great (and somewhat scary!) way to write a first draft quickly and without being able to self-edit is this writing tool . It will prompt you to write for a given amount of time and erase your work if you stop writing.
To summarize a few of the key takeaways from this post:
Don’t be afraid of a bad first draft
Trust the writing process
Take advantage of an experienced mentor
Make the time to sit down and write