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College Application Essay Writing 101: The Writing Process

By Robin, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

For students that have already selected an essay topic, starting on the actual writing process can be just as intimidating. “Process” is the key word here. Writing takes time, and you must set aside at least several weeks to work on the personal essay. So how do you dive into the “process?” And where do you start? Well, I’m here to help you get started!

First, understand that this process is not short. It will take a lot of time and mental stamina, so starting the essay the summer before your senior year is ideal because, trust me, once senior year kicks off you will be happy you got the bulk of that writing out of the way. Now, here are some tips related to the writing process itself to help you get started and have your personal statement done by the end of this summer.

Your First Draft Will Be Rough
Yes, that’s right. Author Anne Lamott has a wonderful essay entitled “Sh*&^%y First Drafts” and she offers wonderful advice: “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it pour all out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” There is value in your first draft no matter how rough it may be. A single sentence in that draft might emerge as particularly intriguing or powerful, and that sentence may help you identify what it is that you really want to write about. Had you not allowed yourself to simply write that crappy first draft, that single brilliant sentence would not have appeared in the first place.

Off With Its Head!
Oftentimes the opening paragraph of a draft may not be as strong as the subsequent paragraphs. As you write, your ideas continue to evolve and develop, and you gain a clearer sense of what it is that you want to say. Once you have a first draft of your essay (remember, it’s a rough draft), revisit the first paragraph and read your essay from start to finish without the first paragraph. You may be surprised to find that you have a more interesting essay when you lose that opening paragraph. Many times, especially in a first draft, the first paragraph is not essential; in fact, it may not even really relate to the heart of your main topic or it may simply be filling space. “Beheading” your essay is often an effective way to make your essay more engaging from the start.

Hook Them Early and Remember the Details
The opening lines of your essay are important. You want to give your reader a reason to keep on reading, so hooking them from the get-go is essential. Try putting the reader in medias res, or right in the action. Hook the reader from the first line – beheading your essay is one technique to use to allow you to get the reader’s attention more quickly. To hold the reader’s attention, you need to be descriptive and detailed. Remember “show, don’t tell” from English class? Help the reader see what you saw and feel what you felt; descriptive details infuse your story with life.

Revise, Revise, and Revise Again
This applies to any piece of writing you do – it’s not a one and done process. You must set aside time to come back and review your writing to make those fine-tuning adjustments. Enlist a trusted friend or family member, someone whom you can rely on to give you warm AND cool feedback, not someone who will simply smile and say “This is great!” There is always room for improvement in writing, and it’s more helpful in the long run if you have a trusted set of critical eyes that will provide you with feedback meant to make the essay even better.

Less Is More
While it may be tempting to let numerous people to review your essay, do so with caution. There’s an old saying about too many cooks in the kitchen spoiling the broth – this applies to your personal essay. The more sets of eyes that read your essay, the more likely you are to get wide-ranging opinions and inconsistencies in the feedback. The quality of your essay may suffer if you try to implement too much feedback, resulting in your own voice being diminished. When in doubt, consult with your college counselor and just ask yourself, “Does this sound like me?” Ultimately, you need to feel confident about your personal essay and if that means ignoring Aunt Susie’s advice, then so be it.

While the task of writing the essay may seem intimidating, embrace it as an opportunity to share part of your story. The way in which you tell your story is how you reveal your personality. Most personal essay prompts are general enough in nature to allow students to pursue a wide range of possible topics that will allow your personality to emerge. Remember, admissions officers are eager to learn about you and hear from you; make the most of this opportunity to share your voice with them!

At IvyWise we work with students on all aspects of the college application process, including brainstorming and editing essay drafts. For more information on our college counseling services for rising high school seniors, or to schedule an Initial Consultation, contact us today.

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