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How to Bang Out A Compelling College Essay Even if You Have The World's Worst Case of Writer's Block-itis

What do you do if you have no clue what to write?

I’ve started working with Class of 2014 kids on their college applications, and the dreaded essay.

They ask me this, once in a while.  Here are a few ideas that may help.

First, make sure you read the questions.

Check that, read and ANSWER one of them.  (There is a difference, trust me.)

Even if one of the choices doesn’t jump out at you (very common in my experience), there is probably one topic that sucks less than the others.

If that’s the case, go with that question.

If not, pick one.  Any of ’em.

Read it five times. Get obsessed with answering it.

Talk to someone you trust about the topic.  Sometimes a parent is a good resource.  Sometimes an English teacher is (but see below).  Sometimes it’s worth talking to an advisor.

I don’t care how you write, pen and paper, laptop, thumb typing, at some point, you must just sit down and write.

Get to work, it’s that simple.  No excuses.

Here’s what I do.  I set a stopwatch for 45 minutes, turn off the ringer, shut down email and Facebook (gasp!  Did he say what I think he said….?) when I write my blog posts or chapters for a book.

Once that time block is up, I get up, walk around, bother one of the guys downstairs, etc. for 10 minutes.

Fine, 20 minutes is more truthful, what can I tell you? I get distracted easily.

Whatever, you get the point.  I take a quick break, then go back to my desk, reset the timer and write more, or edit what I wrote in the previous session.

Then, I let things sit for a day or two.  I let it “breathe.”

Also, I keep a small notebook on me at all times.  Why?

Because my subconscious will produce ideas, or answers to questions I was struggling with, at odd times throughout the day.  I’m sure this has happened to you.

You never know when you’re going to get a brainstorm, so make sure you have something to record it for later.

What if you have no idea what to write?

My contention is that you DO.  Every kid has SOMETHING.

Even if you didn’t cure a deadly disease or live in a third world country for three years, there’s something interesting about you.

Understand that you’re a kid – 16 years old, for god’s sake.  It’s ok to write about something from your young life.

Do you lack confidence in your idea?

That’s ok – the first draft should suck.

Cliche alert:  there’s no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing.

So write fully and freely, without inhibition, for 45 minutes.  Don’t stop.

Chances are that, when you look at what you’ve produced, you’ll see a lot of crappy stuff, but also a fair amount of content that’s pretty good.  (Don’t erase/discard old drafts, either!)

So take the pressure off yourself, write a lame essay, but trust yourself that your third or fourth draft will be something to be proud of.

Two more thoughts:

The best college essays are conversational in tone, almost like the writer is sitting across from the admissions officer and pleading her case (like the movie Admission with Tina Fey. Recommended for parents of college-bound kids, and the kids!).

So it’s fine to break convention.

To write phrases, instead of full sentences.

It’s OK to write one sentence paragraphs, for the love of all things holy!

(Makes it easier to read, don’tcha think?)

If you have a hard time writing a “real” paper, why not use the voice recorder on your iPhone?

Decide which question you are going to tackle, hand write a few bullet points or make a quick outline, turn on the recorder and talk it through.

Again, it’s important to shut off your inner editor/critic.  Don’t make this into a major project. Unclench your sphincter!  Speak freely.

When you’re done, play it back, transcribe yourself, and then go back and edit it lightly.

Unlike a high school English paper, a great college essay does not have to have an introduction, body and conclusion.

In other words, it doesn’t have to be so right-brained.  In fact, if it’s too structured, the danger is that the essay will boring to the admissions officer and will not help your cause.

Likewise, steer clear of five dollar words (plethora, myriad, need I continue?) when “regular” ones will suffice.  You’re not going to impress anyone.

So time-block, eliminate distractions and write with zero pressure.  You might like your results!

Need help with the essay, or the rest of the college application process?

Check out our new admissions coaching program for Class of 2014 students.