How do you begin writing your college essay(s)? I get this question all the time.
Many people think you simply brainstorm a topic and start writing!
Where’s the best place to start? The beginning, of course!
It’s a grave misconception that writing is linear.
It’s nearly impossible, starting from scratch, to write an introduction.
How can you introduce a topic you know nothing about?
Although I read the Common App prompts aloud to my students before we begin a brainstorming session, I wouldn’t think of asking them to pick a topic and start an essay on that topic, just like that (unless, of course, they really want to do so!) Rather, I like to lead them through the back door.
I have oft been quoted as saying, “You have to get lost in order to get found.”
But what does this mean in practical terms? How do you lead a student into chaos?
I have my ways! And you can find out more about them in my book on the subject The Art of the College Essay.
Often, I start by asking them to identify five significant moments in their lives in which they went into an experience one person and came out slightly, or more than slightly, changed. A moment, I tell them, can be an instant, an epiphany, a weekend, a semester, a conversation — but a real moment in time, one that happened on a specific day, in a specific place.
Once they have identified these moments, I ask them to “give me the gist,” to tell me what happened and what they learned from what happened.
What I do next is probably one of the most important steps in the process. I teach them about the Four Modes of Writing: Showing, Telling, Analyzing and Reflecting. I teach them what it means to SHOW, what it means to TELL and how to combine them.
And then they’re ready for the Free Write.
The Free Write is certainly the most important step in the process.
Well, that’s the beauty. Both the Common App and the UC’s have questions so broad that almost any topic can be massaged to fit the prompt. Sometimes, you do have to Free Write ON a specific topic, it’s true. But most of the time, you can choose one or more of your significant moments and you will see that with just a few critical adjustments, these moments will answer one of the questions.
This is the complete opposite of what most college advisors will tell you. And I’m completely convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, this method is what makes my students’ essays so successful!