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. Enjoy this next part of the series, and STAY SANE!
Now that you know what questions you’ll be answering, when the applications are due, and something of what you might tap into about yourself to write the essays, take out the timeline you made for the whole process. Make a sub-timeline now for writing for each of the schools, remembering to allot ample time for generating the essay idea, writing a draft, using trusted readers, revising, re-showing the essay to your readers, proofing, and submitting (include postmark deadline dates and suggested hours of time needed to upload if done electronically when the site gets swamped). If you start on a second or third school choice to warm up to writing, be sure to figure on enough time to convert those essays to essays for your first choice school before its deadline. Ideally, you will allot one day for each of the subtasks — that’s seven days. Most people don’t have several hours a day seven days in a row to work on their essays. Will you need seven weeks? A month? If you have only a week or less for an application, you will have to put almost everything else aside to get the work done.
Here’s how to start:
Take each one of these questions or the questions on the college application you are using if it isn’t the common application and jot down a few ideas for each topic. Don’t judge what comes up as a good idea or a bad idea. Just write the ideas down.
One way to do so is linear — just make a list. Another way is circular — clustering. Many think that there is writing power in “encircling.” The pattern making, creative mind is invited in when things don’t go in a straight line. To cluster as a way of mining your experience, write the topic of the question in the middle of a page and circle it. Then when something comes to mind, write a phrase about it somewhere on the page, circle it and connect it to the middle words with a line. Then make little clusters of images and phrases that go with the words you’ve thought of, circling them and connecting them to the “balloon” of words you wrote down. When you have thought of all you can, start fresh with another image or phrase you jot in another area of the paper, once again circling it and connecting it to the question topic you’ve put in the center of the page. Keep coming up with fresh ideas and images until you think you know which one most interests you. Sometimes you know by how big the cluster is, or sometimes because you think to start a new cluster on a second page to find out more about what you are remembering and thinking.
Using this cluster, I might start an essay with my community service coaching underprivileged kids in a game I excel at. I might start with a scene of working with one or more children. I can show how by sharing my competence and joy, I am teaching those in need a lot about their self-worth. I can show what I am learning from them that will help me. I will also show how I use my love of soccer to enjoy other activities that make me a well-rounded person: dance class, leadership training, knowledge of the world’s people and history.
Or, I might start an essay with a scene of me running or kicking a ball on the soccer field and listening to cheers and feeling free to be myself. Then I might go on to say that from this feeling I am able to restore myself and then take my spirit and abilities to others in ways that help: my soccer team members, my classmates in dance class, the kids I coach, and ultimately my future peers at Stanford and the people I will intersect with in my career and community.
What way I start will depend on where the excitement is for me and how I see it connecting to the attributes I know I need to portray.
By Sheila Bender, former Accepted.com editor and founder of Writing it Real, a “community and resource center for writing from personal experience.”