College Essays in the Spring

While Junior’s heads are stuck in spring break plans, prom dresses and upcoming AP and IB exams, counselors have begun seminars to get them thinking about college application plans. Not only is it important to get recommendation letter requests out, but it also can’t hurt to be thinking about essay plans. Drafts of the new common application questions are out now. Take a few minutes to read the questions and brainstorm some possible responses.

However, at the beginning of the process, I would suggest to stay away from answering the questions. Using an empty notebook or your word processor, make some lists about things that set you apart. Recall some interesting events from your recent past. Think about what you want to sell about yourself. Don’t self-edit. Instead, just scribble out some lists of potentials. Share with mom or dad. Then put the list away until July, with perhaps one or two return visits to add to your earlier thoughts.

My advice to juniors planning to apply to multiple four-year schools, both public and private, is to plan to write at least four different essays. The first one written will be absolute drivel, and will be easy to plant with your tomatoes in the backyard. The second one may be slightly improved, and you’ll be able to work with it. By the third and fourth, you’ll be on a roll and will be writing on topics and with material that colleges will care about. With three really good essays, you’ll have one for the central Common Application question and two others for the supplemental applications. You should prepare have the malleability to move those between the 250-300 word count and the 50-100 count.

Occasionally, I work with students who decided that the college search process means applying to all schools on the East coast, something in Texas and one school in California. If this describes your own college plans, double the amounts I’ve laid out above.

And, before you get writing, look at some of my earlier posts about the essay to both save yourself some pain in rewriting and to get started on the right foot.



Listen to me, believe me next week, and hate me later


Before I go on, maybe I should just tell you the rules that I tell my students about college essays. They are pretty simple, and as I said in an earlier post, I will be showing some models to you soon. These are the five key rules. While you may not like what I say, do it, get into college, and hate me anyway.

  1. It is always about you. The focus of the essay should be something you want to show about yourself.
  2. The essay is most easily written in narrative form. Tell a story about a time that shows you doing something that shows you.
  3. Notice the shows—show you doing what you’re passionate about.
  4. Find the unique. See my earlier posts about seeking good topics and try the Lish exercise.
  5. No more than 1 typed, single-spaced, 1 inch margin word document. If you can’t get an idea onto a single page, don’t bother. College admissions officers read 1000s of these essays. If you haven’t gotten out our idea in 300 words, you’re in trouble. And, I don’t care if the application says you can write more or you can write as much as you want. Only the foolish wander down that path.

Trust me!

Desperately Seeking, Part II


You’ve done what I suggested from the previous post and brainstormed a list of topic that you might find use for the common application question. Shared them with mom and dad, but your list feels dead. Nothing is inspiring you to write. You’re also nervous because as I said in a previous post, you’ve got to showcase something unique about yourself: no soccer or band camp stories, no deceased relatives, and no family trips to Myrtle Beach. Oh, and by the way, no essays about how you’re not going to write a college essay.

Before committing to a first draft of the essay, something else for you to try that would make for getting to a good topic.

One of the most famous writing workshop exercises comes from editor Gordon Lish, who asked his writers to write about a secret, should it be known would change your life. Amy Hempel, our great American short story writer has said that this exercise lead to her much anthologized “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” This story should be required reading for every English major or future English major. It is perhaps the finest short story of the contemporary era. However, I’m off topic.

The point of Lish’s exercise is to dig into meaty topics and consider something small and personal about yourself that can be the focal point for the essay’s narrative to spin on.

Now, were not looking for deep, dark and evil secrets. Abuse, drug abuse, criminality are the kinds of college essay errors similar to writing about deceased relatives. But, let me share examples of topics of two of my students who struggled until I used the Lish prompt with them.

The first student said, “Sherlock Holmes. My dad has had me reading Sherlock Holmes stories since middle school.” The rest poured out of him, writing about what he learned about life from read about the famous sleuth. This student is now at Union. The essay topic was great because it was about reading, reading something that very few people do these days (and wasn’t about those stupid movie adaptation with Downey and Law), and showed something unique about the student.

The second student said, so quietly that I didn’t hear her at first, “Knitting.” She had never shared her love for knitting in the evenings after homework and while watching the TV. Knitting became an extended metaphor of her way of coping with stress and problem solving. She’s now a junior at SUNY Fredonia.

Who thinks that something small like Sherlock Holmes or knitting would be a topic, but there it is. The small and particular about you is what is really important. It’s not the big Himalayan pilgrimages you’ve taken, it’s that everyday thing that nobody knows.

And, if you haven’t read “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” then that’s your homework.



Mine are rattlesnakes. Their yellowish-brown, curling, muscular forms. The image of them rearing to strike. Their sound of dry leaves running over stone. Completely unsettling. A deep fear.

What’s unsettling and fearful for you? When did you confront this? What happened? How did you find equilibrium and safety after?

I thought of rattlesnakes and fears while reading a writing exercise from editor Sherry Ellis’s Now Write! and thought that I might make some suggests that play off of this exercise for your application essay.

The rattlesnake exercise comes to us from writer Michelle Brooks. A friend found a rattlesnake one night in a dresser drawer getting a t-shirt for bed. She attempted to dispatch the snake with a shotgun, missed, destroyed the dresser, and saw the snake slithering off, not to be found. It so unsettled the friend that she had trouble sleeping for the next week wondering where the serpent had got off to.

Brooks suggests that writers think of their own metaphorical rattlesnakes, particular objects that force us to be unsettled. In a narrative, be it fiction or non-fiction, focus the arc of the story around some object that forces the narrator to stop in the tracks and reevaluate his or her situation.

Playing off of yesterday’s blog where I began to discuss the need for finding personal focus, I suggest that you start by making a list of objects and experiences that are unsettling, unnerving, fearful and make you break out in the cold sweat. Then, from the list, think about writing a story of the time that you dealt with this object, and most importantly forced yourself into evaluation of yourself because of it.

Good luck with the snake wrangling!