9¾ tips to help you write your essay

If you’re applying to college this fall, you may be stewing over the essay most applications call for. It doesn’t matter that you’re no Joan Didion or Zadie Smith (or even that you know who those genius essayists are). Just know that the short commentary you compose about your—let’s face it—short life so far, should show that you can organize your thoughts, you’re ready for college, and you have a generally positive outlook on life. Entirely doable. And you’re likely to accomplish those objectives easily if you land on a topic that resonates with you, which explains my header's hat tip to Harry Potter. (For the woefully uninformed, 9¾ is the track number at King's Cross Station, where Harry catches the Hogwarts Express and...oh, for goodness sake, read the books!) The hardest part is getting started.

1. Don’t wait. Nothing produces panic like too little time. Start jotting ideas that might work for an essay topic—your curiosity for military history, the seashell collection that represents family travels, how your life would be incomplete without a bicycle. Keep in mind that in addition to a topic (that thing you want to write about), you’ll need a thesis: an aspect of your essay that tells what your curiosity, collection, or essential object says about you. Set up a writing schedule that allows time to free write, compose, revise, and finalize your essay well before early decision (around November 1) and regular decision (around January 1) deadlines.

2. Find a prompt you like. One route to an essay is by way of a prompt. The Common App provides seven (https://www.commonapp.org/whats-appening/application-updates/2018-2019-common-application-essay-prompts), including #3: “Reflect on a time when you question or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?” Then there’s #7, which conveniently invites you to write about the topic of your choice. IMHO, the Common App prompts aren't the end all and be all. In the past I've mentioned The New York Times as a resource for essay prompts. Here's a link to 650 prompts the Times has compiled for students (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/20/learning/lesson-plans/650-prompts-for-narrative-and-personal-writing.html). Not all are great jumping off points for application essays, but scan the list for the questions you like and see where they take you.

3. Feelings matter. Another topic-related point: when mining for an idea, don’t overlook the contented humming you do while drawing, how a mathematician’s memoir excited your mind, or that time you got lost and the experience challenged your confidence. Ask yourself whether emotions have led to meaningful choices and/or events in your life.

4. It’s your story—not your favorite uncle’s. You may be tempted to take on a topic where you aren’t the central figure in your essay, but do so under advisement. Sure, you can write about people who’ve had a positive influence on you. But think of your writing as a camera lens, and make sure the lens is on you, not someone else.

5. Just write. Writing is thinking. Consider the journeys your mind takes every minute. Free writing allows those reflections and insights to come to you, although not necessarily in an organized way. So don’t expect to put cursor to screen and "unidraft" 650 words of stellar creative nonfiction. Let your ideas flow. While you’re at it, use placeholders with abandon. If you can’t think of the best way to describe something or someone, write “[perfect adjective goes here],” and keep going. No matter what the maximum word count an application allows—write more in your drafts. You can edit later.

6. Remember the reader. Cut to the chase, stay on topic, and give context if your subject is somewhat unusual. You can count on your application reader to be super intelligent but not necessarily aware of the latest music trends or an event specific to your religion or region of the country. And aim for admissions readers to have an emotional reaction to your writing. Worried about your vocabulary or redundancy? Try plunking the text of your essay into a word-cloud generator (there’s a free tool at wordclouds.com) to see what words you might be overusing.

7. Add structure. Make a bullet-point list of the elements in your essay. This list might include a photograph, an event, a conversation, a realization, and so on. When it comes to organizing these elements, think old school: start with an intro and thesis, follow that with, say, three paragraphs that build your case, and then move to a conclusion. Move the elements around so that they help to build the paragraphs. The structure may change over time, but maintaining momentum will help you get to the finish line sooner.

8. Keep in mind this isn’t a paper for school. The term “finding your voice” is thrown around a lot in the essay world. High schools aren’t known for teaching personal narrative, so this may be your first foray into first-person writing. Don’t worry if you have no idea what your voice “sounds” like. Write in a conversational tone, with liberal use of the I-word. Your voice will come.

9. A word about your conclusion. Feel free to add a new-but-related thought at the end of your essay. A former client wrote about her love of engineering and concluded her essay by side-stepping her topic slightly to describe a family tradition of sharing the day’s highlights at dinner every night. She described how, at one meal, she mentioned a mathematics discussion at school, neatly weaving in an engineering-related image of herself with her family, a moment an admissions reader wasn’t likely to forget.

9¾. Some topics are so popular with applicants, admissions readers are bored by them, and “boring” is definitely not the word you want ascribed to your essay. It's okay to be wild about Harry—most of my students are—and if you have a high degree of confidence that your essay about the young wizard is unique, go for it. The key is to own the topic. Remember, this is not your uncle’s essay (Item #4), and nor is it Harry’s. Make sure you turn the lens on you, and if you can’t, move on to another subject. That said, by all means, if it makes you happy, bring your J.K. Rowling collection to college.

A version of this post appeared in my "College Bound” column in Montclair Local.

Photo courtesy Unsplash.com and photographer Ester Marie Doysabas