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Application Essays? Hurray!!!

The essay for an application to college, private high school or a special program is intimidating because, let’s be honest, most of us aren’t accomplished essayists.

One of the options in the common application that many colleges accept is to share an essay you wrote for some other purpose. That recycled essay from last year’s English Lit class is ready to go—but unless it’s award-winningly good, this punt won’t win you the game.

A recurring option in each year’s common application is to write about how you overcame a problem or barrier. This simply requires that you tell your story—but it assumes you’ve got a great story to tell. Do you?

If you led a campus boycott in response to a student being punished for wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, or you established a safe space center for trans youth, or you volunteered at a food pantry, great! Your story can make for a compelling essay.

One bit of advice about essay writing is best given well in advance: Live first, write later. If you’ve never done anything story-worthy, you might want to work on that now. Save the planet. Address hunger in your community. Volunteer to teach English for newly arrived immigrants. Whether or not you ultimately write a brilliant essay about your experiences, experiences are always worthwhile.

Here are some typical essay prompts: Reflect on a time you questioned a belief or idea. Share a talent or skill that is central to who you are. Discuss a challenging problem and how you did (or would) solve it. Describe an event or person that changed your life.

And, one of my favorites: Describe something you do that makes you lose all track of time. That’s where we creatives get to talk about our all-absorbing flow experiences and what we create through them.

Did you know there are numerous student essay contests? Here’s the opening line from the 2020 winner of the We The Students Essay Contest: “On a hot summer Indian day in 1994, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rode an elephant together.” Derek Jiang of Stephen F. Austin High School in Sugar Land, Texas, wrote a compelling piece about the importance of discourse. I don’t know what his college application essay will be, but I bet it’ll be good because he’s been practicing. Look up student writing contests (i.e., go to or the New York Times’ annual Student Contest Calendar).

The thing is, honestly, most student essays don’t sparkle. They come across as strained or flat. Partly it’s that the story isn’t very compelling. If you don’t have a wow experience that’s worth sharing, then your imagination and voice have to be compelling instead. One way or another, the writing has to lift off the page.

Usually it seems like application essays were written effortfully. If you only write one or two essays a year, they won’t feel effortless to you or your readers.

So another bit of advance advice is, write essays often! Why? How? Where? Gosh, I don’t really care so long as you do it. A notebook full of journal entries based on common essay prompts will do the trick. One a day, with your vitamins. Or start blogging. Or enroll in a creative nonfiction class on line if you can find one that’s affordable. Or start your own writing group.

Yes! Start your own writing group! Then you can write from shared prompts each week and read your work to each other. Reading it aloud (in person or via Zoom) is best but you can also use Google Docs to share work and comments. I recommend one simple rule for writing-group discussions: Say what you like about each other’s work. That way you’re bringing out the best In each other’s writing.

Perhaps the most discouraging thing about reading student essays is the sameness of them. It’s as if there is but one essay voice and it cries out, “I’m trying hard to pretend I like writing essays but I never even read essays and I couldn’t be more uncomfortable writing one.” Try to find essayists you actually like (yes, blogs count) and read, read, read.

The star-powered young poet, Amanda Gorman, says she thinks of her long performance pieces not as poems but as essays. Listen to her deliver one to see what she means. It’s poetic and lyrical and compelling—but it definitely has a thesis and a point to make. Essays can take any form you want them to. Maybe some of your favorite lyrics are essays in disguise. And what about a favorite speech? Be open minded about form as you seek essays to read and fall in love with.

And don’t fear your own voice. Bring yourself out as you write. Writing daily is a process of self-discovery, and why journaling and notebooking are so great. It takes time and practice to find and grow your own voice on paper, so get started now.

They say that the secret of great writing is rewriting, but you can’t make a silk purse of a sow’s ear so remember to put off the traditional emphasis on editing until you’re producing reliably interesting essays with a unique viewpoint. Then you’re finally ready to take the best one and edit the potholes out of it—but not until then!

Alex Hiam leads Making Writing Fun workshops and is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure available at Amazon.

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