Here we go again!! How to Get Started on Your College Application Essay

I began this blog when my daughter was a junior in high school and starting her college application process. Like a lot of parents and applicants, I thought she needed some amazing experience in order to write a fabulous essay. The good news is that I was wrong! In fact, I have learned, and now preach, that the most mundane topics actually produce the strongest, most compelling essays.

Now, my son is a junior in high school. So here we go again. If it’s helpful, I will share how I’m going to try to help him with his college admissions essays. It’s never too early to start these, but the reality is most kids don’t get cranking on them until the summer before their senior year, and many wait until later than that. (As with all writing, deadlines can be the best motivators.) My advice to parents and students is to just start thinking and brainstorming about possible topics now, and jot down general areas of interest and experiences that you want to mine. I will do this for my own son and share the process with you in the next post. (You might find it helpful to scroll down my blog and read the entries regarding topics, so you have a better idea of what we are trolling for.)

Remember, don’t work yourself up into a tizzy over these. Everyone has interesting stories to tell. Do your best to keep the pressure and anxiety level low. These aren’t that difficult. They do get done. And most are really good!

Parents–another easy way you can help!

Get some books!

There are a ton of books on how to write these essays. They are filled with great advice, but can also be overwhelming. Here is how you can use them to help your student in a non-threatening way (I did this with my senior daughter and it helped jumpstart the process):

Either buy or check out some of the essay-writing guide books (Buy them used on Amazon for cheap!). Find the sections that feature sample essays. Read through the essay titles and skim essays that look interesting or might relate to a topic your student would pick. If you find one or a couple that you liked reading, and think your student might find them inspiring—either for how it is written, or how the introduction is a “grabber,” or the topic is relevant—put a post-it to mark the page.

When the time is right, offer the book and suggest your student read the ones your flagged. Resist the urge to lecture them. Just set it on their desk and leave the room. If nothing else, it might get them started, and they will find their own favorite essays, and even read some of the general advice and tips in the book as well. All on their own terms.

Remember, these essay assignments can be so daunting to students. They are told that 500 words can be admissions deal-breakers, and are their one chance to set themselves apart from the pack. That’s a lot of pressure on one little piece of writing! Also, many students have never written this type of essay—using the first person and being asked to reveal something about themselves.

I believe the best guide and inspiration can be a good example or two. Suddenly, the student might realize that they also have a good story to tell, or that they can write something like that. The abstract task feels more manageable, and they are free to move forward.

Also, if you hope to be tapped to help them further along in the process, it’s a good idea to read these books to educate yourself on how to write these essays. If you get the honor of being allowed to read a rough draft, or answer a specific question, or proof their final copy, you will be better prepared to direct them in the right way. I’m a writer, and they helped me immensely!

Some titles I like:

How to Manage “Helpful” Parents

 Parents and College Admissions Essays: In or Out?

In theprevious post, I gave “helpful” parents some pointers on how to help students with their college admissions essays. Now, it’s your turn to help your own parents. Here are some tips:

  • First, understand that your parents are on your side. They just want you to have success, and think they can help you. It’s your job, however, to show them how to help.
  • The best way to fend off pesky parents is to prove to them that you have it covered. Tell them where you are at in the process, and that you have put together a timeline for yourself. Simply knowing that you have started will relieve anxiety.
  • Some parents, however, are certain they can help you write your essay. This is where you need to help them understand how critical it is that this is your essay, in your words and voice alone. Tell them this, nicely.
  • Another way to shield yourself from parental intervention is to see if there is a place or specific role where they can help you, but not take over the process. No one knows you or your life like your parent. If you need help with topic ideas, ask them if they would brainstorm with you. Set a time when you both are in a good mood and not tired.
  • Once you have a rough draft, and trust they won’t overtake your piece, let them read it and ask for feedback. Again, watch your moods. Ask them to just tell you what they like, and any places that are unclear or might need more work. Finally, it never hurts to have your parents read your final version to help check for punctuation, spelling and other errors.
  • Writing is hard, and can make you grumpy. This is usually about the point where your mom or dad will come in your room to “help,” and you want to strangle them. Instead of yelling at them to “Back off!,” try just telling them that you are working on the essay, and will ask them for help when you need it. Say it nicely, and they will magically go away.
  • Remember, no one else will care as much about your essay as your parent. If you let them help a little, they might not feel the need to help too much.

Ready to start writing your essays? Try my Jumpstart Guide!

Tips for “helpful” parents…

Here are some tips for parents who just want to help…The trick is knowing when, to intervene:

  1. Some students are self-motivated, driven and will knock out these essays with ease. Leave them alone! Other students (the majority) could use a little help. However, unless you have a harmonious parent/teenager relationship where you are accepted in a “teaching” role, I would advise only intervening if they ask, or if you feel they are falling way behind.
  2. Help them set up a simple schedule or deadlines, if they think that will help.
  3. Back off it they are tired, grumpy or tell you to go away.
  4. If they are having trouble getting started, help them brainstorm ideas. Initiate this exchange only when the setting is relaxed and the mood is right! Talk about the qualities/characteristics that define them. Talk about their main interests, hobbies, experiences, etc. Help them recall specific personal stories related to those topics, “Remember the time you…” Write down these ideas.
  5. Be a sounding board. Read their essay in progress, if they allow it. Give lots of encouragement. Tell them what parts you like and why. Gently, point out parts that are unclear or are not supported by examples. Remember how it feels to have your personal work critiqued or criticized!
  6. Help them understand that writing these essays is a process. Tell them it is normal to work on their essay for a while, then go do something else, then come back and work some more. Urge them to get feedback from teachers, friends, parents, etc. Let them know it is normal to write several versions to get it right.

7. Proofread their final version for errors, such as spelling, syntax, word choice, punctuation, typos. Simply flag them; they can make the corrections. Remember, you may be their only editor.

…if you choose to accept this mission, well, good luck!

Where to start

One of the biggest obstacles in writing anything, especially “essays,” is getting started.
The other night, I walked into my 15-year-old son’s room where he sat at his desk, very distraught.

He admitted up front that he had blown it. The assignment, to write about homelessness for his human ecology class, was given several weeks ago. But he had been absent and failed to find out what he missed, let alone do the catch up research.
Anyway, the rough draft was due the next day. He said he had just spent the last hour staring at his computer screen, trying to write the introduction. He was totally lost and starting to panic.
I remembered the story that one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, said inspired the title for her popular book on writing, Bird by Bird.
She said years ago her younger brother, then 10, was trying to write a report on birds that he had had three months to write. It was due the next day. Her brother was surrounded by books on birds, binder paper, pens and paper, and was totally overwhelmed and close to tears.
Lamott’s dad, a famous writer himself, put his arm around his son and told him, “Just take it bird by bird.”
My son had a similarly overwhelming assignment. How do you get your arms around “homelessness”? The subject fills thousands of books alone! So I gave my son similar advice: Don’t try to take on the whole subject at once. You need to break it down into smaller ideas.

Then plug those into an outline. And never, ever, start with your introduction. You have to know what you are going to say first.
When faced with those open-ended college admissions essay questions–along with the impossible expectation that you define the essence of who you are in 500 words–you probably will experience similar feelings of helplessness, dread and panic.

Just remember: Take a deep breath. Relax. Think “bird by bird.” All you need is a plan!


Learning to write better essays to get into college

My name is Janine Robinson and I am a professional writer, editor and journalist. For the last 20 years, I have reported for top daily newspapers, been the editor for a monthly lifestyle magazine and worked for an Internet company for teachers.
Currently, I am working toward my credential to teach secondary English in California.
I also have two teenagers, both of whom are starting to consider college. My daughter, a junior, has already started taking the standardized tests (including the essays), as well as begun working on her college entrance essays.
In the past couple years, I have taught creative writing classes during the summer, as well as done some private tutoring for Language Arts.
I am planning on offering some informal writing classes/workshops this summer to local teenagers who have started their college quest. One of the classes would focus on writing those dreaded college entrance essays.
I am not a techno whiz, but I thought it might be interesting to start a blog so I can share what I know about writing, as well as what I learn about tips, ideas and inspirational advice on writing college-related essays.
So stay tuned. Maybe if we work together on these essays it won’t have to be so painful!