Write Great College Applications and Stay Sane, Part 12: Writing a Draft

Writing Your DraftNow that you have an outline to follow for presenting your own experience, set an oven timer or an alarm for 15 minutes. Set your fingers to the keyboard or your pen to the paper and write from your outline as far as you can get. When the timer goes off, shake out your hands, take a break of some kind for up to 15 minutes to clear your head, and then get back to writing from the outline for another 15 minutes. Keep at this until you have written from the beginning of your outline to the end of it.  If you prefer to write from beginning to end rather in parts, that’s okay, too. A useful aspect of the outline is the way it will keep you on track whether you write in one or more sessions.

If you get stuck, start describing something that has to do with the part of the essay where you are stuck. For instance, in one sample essay, a student describes losing his tooth at a Red Sox game. Perhaps he was writing and got stuck at the point of describing the game because he didn’t know how much detail to give. Instead of writing a lot of detail, he became afraid it would throw him off track. But then he didn’t know what to write.

In cases like these, start describing the event or place or activity that you have come to in detail. You can decide later what to leave out if anything. In one college application essay, the student wrote:

I ran down the aisle several rows and put my hands up as if I saw all the nearby fans doing. As the ball sailed towards the seats, I did not react fast enough and was not ready when it came at me. The ball struck me straight in the mouth and knocked out two of my teeth, lacerated my tongue, and put a hole in my lip. My friends quickly found one tooth and fans rushed me to the first-aid room where the doctor pushed that tooth back into the hole in my gums within minutes to be sure it would adhere to my bone. He checked my mouth, reported one tooth still missing and told my friends to return to our seats to find my other tooth so he could push it back in.

As a reader, I like being privy to the emergency. It has more impact on me than just hearing that his teeth were knocked out and he went to the first aid booth — showing us his friends helping is part of the experience of resiliency.  Details tell the story. When in doubt put them in. When you get response, your readers will tell you whether they got overwhelmed or bored — and if they did you can easily trim.

Put the Document Away for At Least One Hour

Printing out the document and putting it away overnight is even better. Mailing it to yourself by snail or email (and printing the attachment) is also a way of putting some distance between you and the draft. When you come back to it, you want to see it with fresh eyes. Having someone read it with you even if they don’t say a word and/or reading it aloud are also ways of being sure you get a new perspective. The writing goes into the world separate from you and it has to perform its magic with its readers without you there to fill in gaps or answer questions. There is something about letting it go into the world as a draft that helps you see what it is missing, what it needs to succeed by itself. You will realize there are details missing or sentences that don’t say what you meant them to. Now is a good time to fix what you find.

Thanks for joining us as we continue with Staying Sane through the College Essay Writing Process, an ongoing series that offers college applicants and their parents advice on how to stay on track for completing Ivy-worthy essays…without flying off the handle. We hope you enjoyed this next part of the series, and STAY SANE!

Sheila BenderBy Sheila Bender, former Accepted.com editor and founder of Writing it Real, a “community and resource center for writing from personal experience.”