At the risk of oversharing, I’m going to come right out and admit that I was completely staggeringly incapable of penning an undergraduate admissions essay 50 years ago. As a high school senior, I stared at a blank piece of paper hour after hour. The paper stared back. The paper was incessantly uncommunicative. No words appeared. Unable to elucidate why I wanted to attend college—finally meeting a person of the female persuasion who would be willing to have a conversation with me seemed a poor topic—I finally applied, was accepted, and matriculated at a school the most significant attraction of which was that the institution did not require a writing sample.
Yet in the subsequent half century, I have helped hundreds of students find their voice, speak their truth, communicate that which is meaningful—in short, I have helped a bazillion kids get some words on a page. Following is the distillation of that fruitful guidance:
You can’t write and edit at the same time…
… any more than you can hit a softball and run to first base all at once. Writing and editing are two disparate activities and must not be conflated. Otherwise two bad things happen: 1) you get hit in the head with the pitch because you started to run before you swung the bat. 2) Your essay will never ever in a million years get written because you are obsessing about the tree unaware of the forest. Leaving the mixed metaphor in the blender—softball, can’t see the forest—note that perfect is the enemy of good. Whether you settle on “eviscerated” or “desiccated” in the third paragraph is not going to move the needle. “We changed our minds about admitting her, because she wrote disconsolate rather than despondent”–said no admissions officer ever.
You are who you are
You are still the president of the student counsel with the 3.8 unweighted gpa or you remain the third-string lacrosse player with the 95th percentile SAT scores. Your essay is important, sure, but it doesn’t change your DNA. What does make a difference in admissions decisions for 17-year-old women? Gaining a hundred pounds, changing your gender, and developing an overwhelming predilection for running into people and knocking them over is the way to go. Div I schools are always recruiting linebackers. But if you are unwilling to double your body size and put on pads, then consider being happy with yourself and your chances.
Good writers are good readers.
If you get stuck writing, take a break and read a few pages of your favorite novel. Nothing makes the words flow more smoothly than attending to a master of the craft. Reconnecting with J. K. Rowling might help you get unstuck better than finishing my column this week.
If you’re having trouble writing, try speaking.
Writing is hard; talking is fun. You learned to write in elementary school but you were babbling away by your third birthday. Chat with a buddy about why you want to go to college or what personal qualities you bring to a campus. Then scurry back to your device and get some words on a page.
Let your essay simmer.
Which is a gentle reminder that yes deadlines are coming up but you still have time to avoid sending in a first draft at the last minute. Coming back to what you have already written and making it better is so much more fun than frantically trying to come up with 500 words because the early decision deadline is 72 hours away and you desperately wish you were somebody else.
Don’t let a robot write your essay for you.
Don’t cheat. You want to look back on the admissions process knowing that a machine rather than your own good self deserves to be in the dorm room. And admissions readers can detect AI code within the first paragraph. They can determine essays written by parents in the first sentence.
Don’t get it right, just get it written.
Abraham Lincoln was 37 years older than you when he wrote the Gettysburg Address. Give yourself a break. No one in political office is asking a 17-year-old to be a speech writer, no Hollywood producer is beseeching your classmates to write a screen play. Do the best you can; then let it go.
And if some gentle guidance from a semi-professional writer and editor would be of use, you know where to reach me. Who knows? If you, or your parents hire me to help you with your essays, you could be kid number bazillion and one.