University of Virginia

Getting through the essay

Students, if you are having a tough time with your college application essays, here are some suggestions on what you can do.

First, acknowledge where you are in the timeline.  You’ve put off the essay and now you are swamped with important schoolwork, extracurricular demands, and your social life.  It’s hard to find time to sit down and write an essay and the applications aren’t due today so what’s the big deal?  Your parents are frustrated and you want them to get off your back.  You’ll get it done.

But inside, you aren’t quite so sure.  What will you write about?  Where will you find the time?  Will it be any good?  Let’s take those one at a time.  First, on the subject, get out your list of colleges that you might apply to.  Make a list of the essay prompts, or questions, for each college.  The ones that use the Common App will have the same prompts, plus they may have a supplemental question or two.  If you are technologically inclined, there is an iPhone app that has every essay question from every school.  This list will help you organize your thoughts and keep you from writing more essays than necessary.

When you have your list, read it over to see what topics grab you.  Go with your first, immediate impressions.  Don’t over think this.  Highlight those and discard the rest.  Your essay will be one of the highlighted topics.  You don’t have to decide which topic it will be right now, so put that list aside.

When will you write it?  If that means when will you have a few uninterrupted hours of peace and quiet and no distractions, you won’t find the time.  Ever.  But you don’t really need that, that concept is just another crutch you are using to keep from getting it done.  Dive in tonight with 15 minutes of writing.  Not one hour, just 15 minutes.  No distractions, no food, no computer, no smartphone.  What you write tonight will not be your essay, it will simply be a way of getting your creative juices flowing.  Pick a topic you like:  what’s a favorite Halloween story of yours?; what was your favorite vacation?; who is your favorite relative and why?.  The topic does not matter, just grab one and write non-stop for 15 minutes.

You’ve made great progress just getting to this point, so now we’ll tackle the final question:  will your essay be any good?  The one secret to getting the most out of your writing is you need a good editor.  Every book you’ve ever read has been edited, and edited, and edited .  Your essay should be too.  This means if you want your best effort, you will not write your essay in one sitting.  Think in terms of drafts – get your first draft out in one sitting, and then turn it over to your trusted editor.  For most students, that can be a parent (one parent, don’t complicate it with two).  If that doesn’t work for you then ask a teacher or mentor at school.  Ask them now if they will accept that role, don’t wait until you have the draft written.

 So, three jobs:

 1.  List the potential essay prompts from your schools; read them over; highlight the ones that grab you.

2.  Write 15 nonstop minutes tonight on a topic of your choice.  Show yourself you can do it.

3.  Ask a parent or teacher if they will be your essay editor.  Commit a date by which you will give them your first draft.

If you start by realizing where you are, you can follow this clear plan on how to get to where you want to be.