Updated: Mar 2, 2019
Let’s talk essays.
Say that out loud to your teen and I bet the conversation stops faster than a Waze driver hearing “police ahead.”
Essays are daunting.
Facing a blank page (or screen) is overwhelming. It can crush your self-confidence, your soul, your identity, your healthy diet and according to the psyche of virtually every high school student, your college dreams.
Relax. I swear they’ll be fine.
You’ve got this. Or your student does. And they can do this. Yes it’s harder than other parts of the application and depending on their high school course load and writing experience, it may feel completely out of their wheelhouse. But they can do this (that’s worth mentioning twice).
The key to good writing is…to write.
Stephen King (yes that Stephen King, he writes more than horror) will tell you any writing is better than no writing and that all of it is done word by word:
Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”
Or as Ann Lamott says bird by bird:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Anyone else lived that scene? Ad nauseam? I’ve been the kid, the sibling and the parent at that table more times than I care to count, and “bird by bird” has become our college mantra. But you know what? Bird by bird is a whole lot easier with a plan (I can’t overstate that).
As an anti-planning, deadline-stretching, late-submitting columnist for my brothers in the 2000’s and an occasional guest writer now, “just open a vein and let it bleed all over the page then go back and clean it up later ” is their advice. Kind of a gruesome image, but it works.
Contrary to what most teachers might advise, you don’t always need an outline, or a thesis statement. You need to know your heart and mind; to find your voice and be honest. Get the ideas and story flowing; then go back and write an outline, or bullet points, notes about what you want to include if (and only if) it helps you. Don’t write what you think an admission counselor wants to hear. EVER. You’re both smarter than that. Do keep your audience in mind, keep it clean, and error free, but write your story.
And then keep reading/writing it. First drafts should never be last drafts, but I find that’s what both of my kids tend to do (or try to do). They write it once, don’t reread it, and then walk away from it. The opposite of how to do anything well.
Polish. Practice. Review. Revise. Again. And Again. And again.
That’s the most important step. In everything. My boy man played football so I put it in sports terms for him, after his team learned a play they didn’t just stop. They ran it over and over again, until it became smooth, focused, quick. My daughter is an artist and a dancer and the same rules apply, they practice choreography, and mix colors again and again until it flows exactly how and conveys each emotion as intended. Both continue to make adjustments, tweaking away until it feels right, until it is right.
It’s the step everyone likes the least, the fine grain sandpaper step of furniture painting. I always skip that step. And I always regret it.
So if they’re feeling overwhelmed by the task at hand and are just beginning to write an essay for an application due tomorrow (what happened in my house at both the Nov. 1st and Dec. 1st early decision deadlines, grrrrrr), tell them to open a MacBook (or a notebook) and let the words flow (that sounds better than open a vein and let it bleed).
The two best pieces of advice for getting it done (at the last minute) from my favorite book on writing aptly named On Writing are:
First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
Eliminate distraction. “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.”
*That second one is simultaneously the most important and the hardest to enforce around here. The vital thing to know (and I mean really know and believe):
The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” ~Stephen King
But maybe gloss over the part about fear causing bad writing, because fear is rampant among college applicants. Stick to the magic piece, because that is definitely true. Especially if you can get them in the zone. The joie de vivre zone; that space where all else falls away, where time stands still and stress, fear, hunger, and tiredness dare not tread. Everyone has something that provides that escape, singing, painting, skiing, acting, reading, writing, running, meditating, something. Get them in that zone, and then have them brainstorm essay ideas. That’s when you’re likely to tap into the magic.
Wanna hear the good news?
According to sources, essays rarely make or break an admission offer (phew). But they are a good window, limited by word count of course, into the personality of your child as a college’s potential student, so it’s uber important for them to be open, honest and gulp, vulnerable. I know as teens vulnerable is the last thing they want to be (believe me, I feel them), but good writers, good humans, always are. It’s hard. And scary, but oh so worth it, so get them to look in, write out, and polish up.
And don’t worry. Your child (adult? adultish child? childish adult?)…student, your student has got this. And they’re arguably at an advantage over us in our day: A. They have laptops. B. with spellcheck C. and word count, but do NOT under any circumstances let them use the thesaurus ala Joey (baby kangaroo) Tribiani…