The dread a student feels facing the Common Application Essay is palpable. I hear it in my student’s voices, I see it in their body language, I read it on the page. One of my students asked: “Did you see that New York Times’ article about the (Common Application) essays on money?” The edge in my student’s voice told me he was worried that his Common Application Essay topic would be identical to the one in the newspaper. Another one of my students told me: “Everything has been said.” This young woman’s resignation had me near tears. She was seventeen years old and felt that she had nothing new to offer the world.
However, both these students’ responses made me love what I do even more. Even though they were discouraged, I knew they both had essays waiting to be born that would not only impress, but also inspire. Both of my students were funny, poignant, smart, and insightful high school seniors. Regular, yet unique; normal, yet idiosyncratic. Their parents thought they were superstars (as they should) and the students hoped they would get into at least one college (they each were accepted to multiple universities). And yet, they both started in the same place where my most successful students begin–so overwhelmed with anxiety that they fear putting down the first word.
By the time they were finished, my students composed several drafts of their final essays. Each essay was a little better than the last. While it’s normal to assume essays should emerge from our minds fully shaped and defined, the reality is that it takes time to coax the great ideas from the page. Writing and re-writing teaches us what we are actually meaning to say. Eventually after enough writing and editing my students created something profound and useful; something unique and extraordinary; something that could only have been written by a smart, insightful person who belongs in a great school.
One student said to me last year, “I’m a better writer for this. I’ll miss the late night work.”
I know she won’t miss the late nights and all the edits, but I do know she is a better writer. Now that we are in the middle of the summer, it’s time to start noodling immediately.
By noodling, I mean playing around with ideas on the page. Start the exercise of writing yourself into a corner, backing up and trying again. It’s time to start work on the Common Application Essay–the sooner we start noodling, the sooner the best essay will emerge. One of my students heading to Yale in the fall had to write two 500 word plus essays for his application. He thought he had both essays outlined when we began working together only to discover that neither felt truly finished. He worked hard in September and October and crafted gems that captured not only his voice, but his point-of-view and temperament. They were all the things good essays must be, but they were the product of many drafts. You have much to say that needs to be heard; however, realize that you need time to figure out how you want to say it.
Instead of worrying, start writing. Your glass is half-full, never half-empty. Dig for the gems, then you can shape and polish them into something spectacular. Write so much that your problem will be deciding which great ideas to use instead of wondering where to begin. Then the issue becomes an editing one, not a writing one.
By Elizabeth England, Writing Coach