Gabrielle Glancy is an awesome college counselor! She is one of those rare individuals who has a gift for listening and bringing kids out. We went with her for both our son and our daughter. She knows how to help kids find their path — which schools to apply to and what they might want to study — and most importantly, she is really an expert at helping them write college essays that get them in!
Writing is difficult for everyone! Writing under deadline is even more difficult.
And yet that is what you face in writing your college admissions essays.
In fact, in applying to college, you are asked to write the most important essay(s) of your life — under deadline, with word limits, often answering specific prompts.
To me, this is a recipe for ANXIETY!
Writing and anxiety don’t mix.
Rather, they are like oil and water. Once anxiety enters the picture, creativity skulks away and hides in a corner.
I think it’s Freud who said “Anxiety is the great narrower.”
Anxiety makes you contract, freeze, get small and afraid.
So we want to avoid anxiety at all costs.
But how do you avoid anxiety in a high stakes game like trying to get into the college(s) of your dreams?
Actually, teaching students how to do that is one of my areas of expertise, and, in fact, may be my biggest secret to success and claim to fame. 😉
Beginning your college essays early is one very simple antidote to that which shall not be named — writer’s block.
Except in rare cases, writing takes time. True, there are instances in which you sit down and write a brilliant essay from start to finish all in one go. I like to call this a dangerous piece of luck. It’s not the norm. It’s rare. And you can’t count on it.
If you start early, at least you eliminate one of writing’s most insidious arch enemies — time pressure.
But the truth is, even if you have all the time in the world, writing still seems to stir up some anxiety.
I have come to believe that this is because there are two warring parts of the brain — the creative part and the critical part — and, like Japanese fighting fish — if you let them near each other, they’ll devour each other!
So what do you do to keep the creative and critical parts of yourself apart?
For one thing, you have to realize that there is a difference between Product and Process.
Most people, even your teachers, get them confused or think they’re the same. They’re not.
Product is what you are aiming for, what it should look like when it’s done.
Process is how you get there.
To write a good college essay — or anything, for that matter — you need to know the difference between product and process.
This distinction is so important that I devote a whole chapter to it in my book The Art of the College Essay.
In this case, product is a narrative personal statement that shows the Ad Com what you’re made of! It should be 650 words or less (for the Common App Essay). It should be compelling, revealing and authentic.
How do you write one of these essays?
Well, that’s why I have a job!
Most people think you read the prompts, brainstorm ideas, and write an essay from A to B.
If that works for you, great!
That would give me a big case of that which shall not be named! (Writer’s block!)
There’s no harm in looking at the prompts for the Common App. You may get ideas just from reading them. I often read them aloud to students and ask them if anything comes up for them.
But remember, they are just prompts. They are meant to trigger ideas. In fact, prompt 7 is Topic of Your Choice. So in reality, you can write on anything you want.
There’s no harm doing anything that generates ideas.
If reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” makes you think of the winter your grandfather died and you ran out into the snow and wouldn’t come back home, then Robert Frost’s famous little poem served as a prompt for you.
Or perhaps it was a dream you had . . . a snippet of conversation . . . a moment of musing on the hidden benefits of paper clips. (Ask me and I”ll send you an amazing college admissions essay on paper clips!)
So it really doesn’t matter what gets you going. It only matters that you get going. And honestly, anything can trigger that.
Once you free yourself from the idea that you have to write an essay from start to finish, the world is your oyster! Sometimes when I’m stuck, I pick a random book off my shelf. I particularly like books on astronomy and quantum physics! They are very rich in metaphor.
A black hole is a place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light can not get out. The gravity is so strong because matter has been squeezed into a tiny space. This can happen when a star is dying.Black holes can be big or small.
Any number of phrases from this little paragraph can be the source of inspiration.
Take “squeezed into a tiny space,” for example. What does that remind you of? A long car ride with your brothers and sisters? Sitting in the back of the bus? Climbing into a cardboard box to hide from your mom?
And how about a feeling you might get, a “space” you might be in, where “gravity pulls so much that even light cannot get out?”
So anything can inspire you if you’re free to be inspired.
Sometimes to help a student get into the zone, I do an exercise in which we write a crazy short story in turns. I write a sentence; you write a sentence; I write a sentence; you write a sentence.
Since you never know what I’m going to write, you are free to let yourself be in the moment and respond when the time comes.
Another favorite exercise to get students into the “zone” is to have them pick random phrases from a book — it could be any books — and then write using the phrase as a “prompt.”
Let me demonstrate:
I pull off my shelf a small book by Rebecca Solnit called Hope in the Dark.
The first phrase I see when I open the book:
Imagine what else could have sprung from that morning eight years ago.
Now it’s my turn to write something that could follow this line. And here is what I wrote:
To jump ahead eight years from eight years ago lands me right here writing to you. But let me count back. Where was I living? What was I doing? Perhaps that was the year I witnessed a double homicide in Oakland, California. . .
(Sorry, dear reader, to be so grim. It’s a true story, but I will save it for my next book . . 😉
A random phrase from someone else’s book can prompt you to write an amazing essay!
Anything can, if you are open. And realize you can just write write write. And if you get yourself into the zone.
I often like to say you need to “get lost in order to get found.”
What do you do once you’ve free written your little heart out?
You read what you’ve written to figure out what you’re trying to say!
But first, you must free write. Stream-of-consciousness, no regard for grammar, punctuation and spelling — but in FULL sentences.
Don’t be tempted to use bullet points, except to jot down the ideas you came up with when you were brainstorming.
Allow yourself to go sentence by sentence into the unknown — and then you’ll see that the book I pulled off the shelf randomly, maybe wasn’t so random after all, as free writing will give you Hope in the Dark!
If you squeeze yourself into a little box and believe you have to write your essay from start to finish based on one of the Common App prompts — good luck! That’s a hard road to hoe, as they say.
Rather, allow yourself to be triggered by any thought, memory, idea, passage from a book, or even prompt . . .
— and then . . . you know what I’m going to say . . . FREE WRITE!
Once you’ve done that, you can read what you’ve written to figure out what you’re trying to say!
In a Free Write, as you may recall, you write anything and everything that comes to mind in relation to whatever has prompted you in the first place, stream-of-consciousness-like, with no attention to spelling, grammar, punctuation or even paragraphs. Only one requirement — FULL SENTENCES.
Once you start writing, you may find yourself far afield from your original “triggering subject.” That’s fine. That’s okay. You’ve succeeded in allowing the creative part of yourself to have free reign while the critic sits in the corner cleaning its fingernails.
The time will come for the critic to emerge and see how the whole thing might fit together.
For now, you’ve gotten started — and that’s what we set out to do.
It really doesn’t matter what the prompt is for the Common App essay.
The UC Personal Insight Questions are a different story — in a way.
For those, the prompts are more specific, and you do need to address them. But there again, you start in the same way. You allow your mind to wander on the subject at hand, you brainstorm and write down whatever comes up for you, and then . . . you got it! You FREE WRITE on that subject.
I will go into more detail about the UC Personal Insight Questions as that deadline draws closer. You can also take a look at the post I dedicated entirely to the Personal Insight Questions.
For the moment, you know how to begin.
Allow these to inspire memories and thoughts. Don’t be too literal and get locked into dutifully answering them. Remember, that’s a recipe for that which shall not be named.
I’m happy to guide you through this process, step by step. Soon my course on How to Stand Out to Get In will be available for you to use.
In the meantime, I absolutely love to help students find their way to great topics and write amazing essays that will get them in. Click here to get started!