College Application Essay Writing Tip #3 – The Process

There aren’t too many people who would dare argue that writing isn’t (very) hard. Success in writing usually comes as much from persistence as it does from talent. Just like the Little Engine that Could, the writers who never give up are the ones who are the ones who end up with the best story.

Persistence can trump Talent, and often does

The same is true for college essays. Because the task seems so daunting, it is easy to want to throw in the pencil. But those who stick with it, generally end up with an essay they are proud of.

Most writers – especially new writers – tackle all of the steps of the writing process at once. They try to brainstorm, draft, and revise simultaneously. How many times have you written a sentence and gone back and rewritten it several times in an early draft? It’s hard to get out of the first paragraph when you do that. It’s hard to finish anything that way.

Breaking the process down into steps makes it far less overwhelming.

Consider tackling your essay in six stages. I know that sounds like a lot – but you have to remember this is an investment in your future. It’s worth the time you will be putting in.

Here are the steps:

Stage One
Brainstorm – what do you want to write about? Try to focus on a moment in which you saw the world in a new way – this doesn’t have to be a huge event. Small moments can be quite powerful.

Stage Two
Start writing. Get the story down without correcting mistakes or rewriting anything. Some people call this free writing. Write without interrupting the flow of your thoughts. If you must, you can underline words/sentences that you know you want to revisit. But no backspacing. No erasing. Just move forward and write like a Madman. (For more info on that, read this wonderful essay by Betty Flowers.)

In this writing session, don’t worry about cliches or repeating yourself. Don’t worry about the sequence of your story. Don’t worry about the “so what” of your story. Just Write.

Now let your essay sit for at least 24 hours without doing anything to it. Take a day off.

Stage Three – Read Your Essay Out Loud, then…
Look at the structure of your story. Think about your essay as if it were a fairy tale.

Does your essay include these important story elements:
Once Upon a Time – you are probably writing about some sort of change. So this part of the essay highlights how things were before the change happened (or the status quo) so the reader can understand the impact of the change. (In Cinderella, this would be that Cinderella lived happily with her mother and father.)

Until – this is what happened that caused the change or a break in the status quo. (In Cinderella this would be her father marrying her wicked stepmother who wouldn’t let her do anything but clean. She wouldn’t even let Cinderella go to the ball.)

But then – this changes the flow of events. You might have more than one of these. (In Cinderella, this would be Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears, Cinderella meets the prince but loses her slipper, the prince finds the slipper, and then the prince finds Cinderella.)

And Now – this is the final result. This is the “so what” of your essay. This is where the theme comes to life. The story is a set of plot points. The theme is why those plot points matter. (In Cinderella, this would be Cinderella marries the prince and no longer has to live with the stepmother. Good triumphs over evil.)

You’ll notice these are all plot points that lead to the “so what” that it’s better to be kind. Love wins. If you are a good person, goodness will ultimately find you. The “so what” is the reader’s take away from the story.

As you revisit the structure of your essay you can make small changes to other things along the way but don’t get distracted from the mission. Make sure your essay covers the Once Upon a Time, Until, But then, and the And Then. This makes it a complete story.

Because this is such a short piece, it will probably work best if you tell the story in chronological order.

Stage Four – Read Your Essay Out Loud, then…
Now look at each paragraph. Is each one necessary? Does each paragraph advance the story? Is each paragraph presenting new details rather than repeating information that has already been shared? Is each paragraph in its logical place in the story – does what happened first, come first? Are you using specific details to engage the reader in the essay world?

Is each sentence doing the same things – advancing the story, not repeating details, coming in the right place in the story/paragraph?

Now look at the words – are you using strong verbs so that you don’t need as many adverbs? Is each word necessary? Don’t be afraid to cut out anything that is not absolutely necessary. And very importantly, does this essay sound like you? A lot of students try to write with an academic tone but what the admissions panels want is your voice. So make sure it’s authentic!

You will keep the reader’s interest when she wants to know what happens next. So make sure your story is moving forward. Each paragraph, each sentence, and each word should be working to do just that – advance the story.

Then finally, does the end of your essay make it clear what the “so what” of your story is? If you have done a good job with your plot, the “so what” should be clear. It emerges out of the story. You shouldn’t have to force it to be there.

Stage Five – Read Your Essay Out Loud, then…
Here you will get down to the nitty gritty. Make sure the sentence-level mechanics are working: grammar, complete sentences, correct punctuation, strong word choices, etc.

Stage Six
Ask someone you trust to read your essay. The first blog post in this series lists questions you should ask them when they are finished. Click here to read that post.

Good luck and happy writing!