By Tasha, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor
For many students, essay writing is one of the most intimidating parts of the college application process. While the Common Application essay is open-ended and leaves a lot of room for interpretation, some supplemental college essays are extremely specific. Whatever the prompt, students must rise to the occasion and submit the strongest applications possible.
If you apply to 10 universities, you could have anywhere from 10 to 50 or more essays to write. For some, these numbers are overwhelming. That is why it is an excellent idea to start flexing your writing muscles before applications are even released.
As a high school junior, you may feel impatient to get started with your applications as you finalize your balanced college list and plan for campus tours. If that is you, do not worry. There are a lot of things you can do during your summer break to work toward strengthening your essay writing skills. The more you focus on improving your writing in general, the more prepared you will be to craft strong and impactful college essays.
Read Personal Essays, Memoirs, and Other Narrative Nonfiction
If you are not already an avid reader, the summer is a great time to become one. Reading is one of the most productive and tangible things you can do to improve the quality of your writing. “Reading to write,” in fact, is widely accepted as an effective and strategic method to becoming a better writer.
Nonfiction writing is particularly helpful to read as you prepare to write your personal statement, which is, of course, nonfiction. Picking up a recent edition of The Best American Essays is a great place to start. This is an anthology that brings together what are considered some of the best essays published throughout the country in any given year. The wonderful thing about anthologies is that you do not have to read the whole thing, and you do not have to go in order. You can pick and choose the essays that interest you and give yourself the time to “read to write.”
As you read, ask yourself what is working and what is not. Are you having an emotional response to the writing? What devices is the writer using? Is the narrative pulling you in, and is it helping you get to know the narrator? As you read and begin to identify good writing, you will start to internalize the methods in your own writing.
Though a memoir and personal essay are closely related and sometimes intertwined, traditional memoirs are novel-length personal works of nonfiction. Memoirs usually zoom in on a particular era or facet of a person’s life, differentiating it from an autobiography. Similarly, the college personal statement is a zoomed-in view of some aspect of your life. Reading memoirs may help you get a sense of the kind of story you might want to tell.
Read Books About Writing
I recommend focusing on reading to write, but if you have extra time and want to read about the craft of writing as well, there are many excellent books to choose from. Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story is a classic book on the craft of personal essays and good narrative nonfiction. The situation is the specific and literal—what is actually taking place? The story, however, is about the situation’s deeper meaning, which is often universal. The story is the answer to the “so what?” question that you may ask yourself when reading any piece of writing. Gornick’s text is an excellent way to push yourself to think about essay writing in this way, setting you up to write a sophisticated and layered personal statement.
Take a Nonfiction Writing Class
If you have done some reading already and want to put what you have learned into practice, taking a structured writing class can be a fantastic way to do that. A good writing class that focuses on the personal essay or memoir will challenge you to think about and reflect on your life in a way that will help you find your story for the personal statement.
Coursera has a highly rated and popular course through Wesleyan University called “Memoir and Personal Essay: Write about yourself.” Through a series of self-paced lessons and exercises, the class prepares students to think critically about their childhoods, their pasts, and their present in order to mine rich, compelling stories from their existing personal narratives.
You may also consider taking a one-time nonfiction writing workshop or even a weeklong course. Many writing schools across the country have continued to offer remote writing classes. These online courses can provide flexibility as well as different models of teaching, both synchronous and asynchronous. Writing schools that offer nonfiction classes include Catapult, Grub Street, Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, Creative Nonfiction, and Gotham Writers, to name just a few.
As a junior, it may pay off to be intentional about how you spend your summer break. Rather than lounging on the beach or speculating what the fall’s college application prompts will be, consider spending the time on your writing skills.
At IvyWise, we work with students through every step of the essay-writing process, from brainstorming impactful topics to helping with narrative writing and editing. We’re here to help your authentic voice shine through and identify the experiences that will tell the admissions office something new about you. For more information on how we can help you with your college application essays, contact us today.