Here’s a little book of essays written by graduates of Berkeley High School, which has a truly diverse student population and moves through about 700 seniors every year. (“As you will see from these stories, some live on their own, while others come from well-off families,” states the foreword.) And they all found compelling stories to tell about themselves. The essays, which targeted mostly California state schools, UCs and select private colleges across the country, were collected for this book by a savvy college counselor there named Ilene Abrams.
The book includes the name of the authors of each essay, along with what year they graduated and where they ended up going to college. It’s clear that these students were well-counseled in the process, since almost all the essays met the goal of their advisors: to tell a story “only you can tell.” The stories are rich in details, as diverse in topic, style and tone as their writers, and most tell some type of story. The best thing is that I believe they can help students see that they could write a similar essay!
Roy Peter Clark was a famous writing coach when newspapers started directing their reporters to tell the news through a story-telling format in the late 70s and 80s, a genre called New Journalism and made famous by Tom Wolfe.
(The main difference between New Journalism stories and your college essays is that your stories are told in the first person, as opposed to the third person. It’s all narrative writing.)
Here’s a link to his 50 tips, and podcasts: http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=78&aid=103943
My favorite tips, when it comes to writing college essays, are numbers 1, 8, 9, 10, 14, 20, 21, 22, 24, 32 and 34.
(With each podcast, Clark elaborates on the tip with examples and further insights–if you have the patience and are a good listener. I’m getting the book!)
I remember wanting to improve my writing in high school, and feeling frustrated by all the “tips” in the popular how-to-write books: “Be concise,” “Use action verbs,” and the all-popular, “Show, don’t tell.” OK, but how do I write better?
Later, I came upon one writing book that made a little more sense, called “Writing Down the Bones,” by Natalie Goldberg.
Here is what she said about “Show, don’t tell,” that helped me: “‘Don’t tell, but show.’ What does this actually mean? It means don’t tell us about anger (or any of those big words like honesty, truth, hate, love, sorrow, life, justice, etc.); show us what made you angry. We will read it and feel angry. Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation, and that feeling will awaken in them.”
And she goes on:“Some general statements are sometimes very appropriate. Just make sure to back each one with a concrete picture. Even if you are writing an essay, it makes the work so much more lively.”
One great way to “show” readers is to be specific with your writing and use details! I talk about how to be specific when writing your college application essay in this post.
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!
As a professional writing coach, I help students, parents, counselors, teachers and others from around the world on these dreaded essays!
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