You’ve listened to college search lectures in high school, taken notes in English class, and chatted with your counselor. Your workspace at home is all set up you’re your laptop or notebook, a drink to stay hydrated, and a snack to fuel your thoughts. You’ve even read the essay writing how-to’s and now you need to choose a prompt, brainstorm, write, proofread, and submit. Basically, you just have to do it.
There’s only one problem: You’re not doing it. You want to write your application essay, but you stare at a blank page and that blinking, mocking curser. You have writer’s block, quite possibly from the anxiety of writing this essay that’s going to determine your future. Here are five stress-free ways to get your brain working and ideas flowing when starting your college essay.
1. The group essay party
This group activity helps you get inspired by others’ words and have fun exploring your own. Print out some essay prompts. Include both the Common Application prompts and some prompts directly from colleges. Create two piles in front of the writers: a Common Application prompt pile and a college prompt pile. Place the prompts face down. Writers must choose one from each pile and choose which to write about first. The challenge is the writers must find some way to address the prompts, even if it seems silly or they would never choose that prompt in real life.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and everyone should just write anything that comes to mind, then repeat for the second prompt. When time is up, read essays aloud or pass papers around the circle. Focus on what’s good about other’s work, like a line that stands out or a clever angle for a story. Then, everyone takes the positive critiques to implement into a real first draft. Ultimately, you’ll be able to choose the essay prompt that fits you when the time comes, but this game fosters out-of-the-box thinking by considering questions you might have discarded otherwise. Who knows? Your least favorite prompt may inspire your best essay!
2. The vocal essay
Often a great essay is right on the tip of your tongue, but your hands and brain don't cooperate. When that happens, abandon your hands, and use your voice instead. After all, prompts are questions from college admission officers. Answer them as if in conversation with them! Record a voice memo or video that articulates your feelings and goals verbally. Then transcribe what you said onto your piece of paper. From there, just rewrite and edit to make it work in an essay format. Once you get the ball rolling, there will be no stopping you.
3. The shapeshifter POV
Have trouble writing about yourself? Then don’t. Let something else do it for you: Choose something central to who you are—it could be a pair of dance shoes, a baseball bat, or a book. You could also choose a place, like a studio, the dugout, or the library. It can be anything that connects to you to the prompt you’re attempting to respond to. Then, write from the perspective of that thing in your life. When a senior at my high school was asked to write about her future ambitions, she wrote from the perspective of a microphone to depict her passion for performing. This is a great exercise for students who enjoy creative writing because you can use your imagination to uncover a real part of yourself.
4. The time traveler
This brainstorming game is great for essay prompts that ask for lessons you’ve learned, challenges you’ve overcome, or a moment you have to grow up. Instead of using college prompts to generate ideas, you’re going to just think of a memory to begin a story. Ask yourself, “When was the first time I really stopped and thought about something being wrong or right?” or “If I had a memoir what childhood memory would need to be in there?” The flashback to your childhood provides an anecdote that will entice the readers to read more and give you a story to ground your lessons of growth in.
5. The twinning
With this brainstorming technique, all you need to do is read college essays from students who were accepted to college. Not only will they give you an idea of what colleges want, but they can also inspire you to uncover your own story. Consider the tone, approach, and length of each essay. Notice the various angles and voices you can differentiate between them. A successful essay can be funny or serious, direct or abstract. For instance, The Beard, an essay about adulthood, is entwined with a whimsical anecdote of a high school senior’s pride in his first “real” beard.
At any rate, applying to college feels overwhelming for every high schooler at times, especially when it comes to the essay. Even as someone who has read a lot about writing a quality application essay, I had trouble starting mine. It’s so easy to put it off in an effort to avoid the stress, but speed writing the night before the application is due does not produce a quality essay—and it’s way more stressful. Procrastination collects anxiety interest and when payments are due, it’s not pretty.
The best time to start your college application essay is your junior year before you really start the official application process. This way you have plenty of time for a few drafts and an opportunity for a teacher to read it too. Then, when you are ready to apply to your schools, you already have an essay to turn in (or at least practice writing one!).
Whether it's with your friends or on your own, find your first words and just keep going! Explore our College Admission section for more help nailing your application essays.