November and December deadlines are now fast upon us! Take advantage of school closings and power outages to daydream on your college essay topic. Keep a pen and paper handy. Recline in a beanbag or on the couch away from parents and siblings and grab a few of my prompts. Follow these A,B,C’s and see what you come up with:
A. Aim – In order to land on a satisfying topic for your college essay, you must try on a few first. You probably hate this idea. You want to start with your topic and work from there. Honest and compelling stories aren’t easily found that way. Spend thirty minutes just thinking about a few prompts that you like. Once you have some thoughts that make you smile, write them down immediately.
B. Build – A friend recently said of creating new work, “You’re not going to marry it, you’re just trying it on.” The same is true of drafting your college essay. Don’t think of it as a big commitment. Just get something down on paper and see if it works. A good trick is to use as much detail as possible to make your story unique to you. If you don’t have enough detail, try another story.
C. Complete – In order to come up with a workable draft, commit to finding the arc of your piece. This will include the ultimate point of the essay, some level of conflict, and an aspect of reflection. This takes time; give it time. Walk away for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes. Add a few new details or an insight.
D. Do-over – Once you have drafted at least five paragraphs (about 500 words), you may invite feedback. A word of caution: Pick a reader that you think can give you constructive feedback – and that means telling you what worked first, and what could be improved second.
E. Edit – Once you’ve had a good amount of feedback, consider it thoughtfully. Be brave. Be willing to cut out whole paragraphs, or favorite sentences that don’t work. Be diligent and honest enough to go a little deeper with a description. Do this at least twice. To ensure that you are using your own voice and to catch avoidable mistakes, read your draft aloud.
F. Finish – This is important: DO NOT invite a new reader into the picture at this point! If you want someone else to proof read it with fresh eyes, make sure to tell them that is all you want. Don’t open up a can of worms if you feel that you are complete. Invite only positive feedback and proofreading.
When you feel proud of your piece, you have to put it away and move on. It’s not meant to be perfect, or to say everything you want the college to know, or to make a case for your acceptance, or even to impress them with all that you’ve accomplished. It should be mistake-free, pleasant to read, perhaps memorable in some way: heartfelt, funny, educational, tender, quirky, or insightful. It’s just a window into a slice of your life that your friends and family get to know without a published piece of writing.
If you need some help, consider attending one of my workshop sessions on November 11th at the W@tercooler in Tarrytown. Visit www.naomivladeck.com/events/ for details and to register. Pre-registration is required, space is limited to 5 students per group.