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"Mission Impossible: Why College Essays Are So Hard to Write and What to Do About It" Guest Blog

Updated: Nov 2, 2023




Anne Elrod Whitney is a brilliant teacher of teachers of writing at Penn State. Anne and I were elementary school classmates from grades K-4 in Northwest Houston. Years later, we connected on social media, which at its best, can offer a platform for re-establishing and reinforcing connections that would probably otherwise be lost.
Anne has written some great books on writing, and advised countless writers, and people who want to teach writers, on writing.
We've discovered that we share a lot of ideas about the potential benefits of authentic, reflective writing for the college application. It really can provide opportunity for taking stock of lessons learned, values, and identifying one's own voice as they prepare to move one step closer to adulthood.
As a first step in collaboration around sharing ideas and strategies for writing with my clients and wider audience, Anne has graciously shared some thoughts on writing the college essay in three installments.
Start here-- and share with young people you know who are navigating, or preparing to navigate, their personal narrative writing for college applications! --MM

Your mission is challenging, but that’s not because you’re not ready for it. It’s challenging because it is challenging, period, to describe your inner life to strangers in a short format you didn’t choose and with an evaluation attached. However, you have what you need to accomplish the mission.

POST 1 of 3:

Mission Impossible:

Why College Essays Are So Hard to Write and What to Do About It

Anne Elrod Whitney, Ph.D.


Call it a rite of passage, or call it torture: whatever you call it, the college essay is a tough assignment. You’ve written plenty of more complex texts in your high school career, so why does this one feel so difficult? Even the strongest writers can feel like these short pieces of writing are tough to crack.


I’m a professor who studies writing and writers, and I’ve spent a career teaching teachers to teach writing, and before that teaching college and high school writers myself. Here’s my take on this treacherous-seeming assignment, the college admission essay.


Think about all the things that a writer is contending with in any piece of writing. There’s the subject or topic, of course, and you write for a purpose related to that topic for a particular audience, in a particular form. Unfortunately for you, the college admission essay is tricky in all of these. Let me show you what I mean, and in doing so I’ll point toward some ideas that can make this tough mission more possible.


Let’s say your topic is air travel. What’s your purpose? Maybe you’re writing about air travel in order to inform a first-time flyer about what happens on a commercial flight, or maybe you’re writing for future pilots to explain how the airplane works. Or you could write for the purpose of helping readers let go of fears of flying. Or to get bankers to lend you money to start a new airline. Then there’s you, the writer, and there’s an audience who will read it. For each purpose, it matters whether you’re an aviation engineer, or a psychologist, or a parent, or an entrepreneur. It affects what knowledge you have to share, how you will go about accomplishing your purpose in the writing, and your credibility to others. An audience of children on their first flight, an audience of bankers, and an audience of pilots have very different ideas about who they want to hear from and what they want and need to hear about. You may have tons of authority in the eyes of one reader and none in the eyes of another reader; flipping that coin, you may have a good sense of what one audience would need to know but not such a good sense for another audience. All of this is also linked to the genres we choose and the conventions that matter: do you write from your own experiences, in the first person? Or do you use lots of diagrams? Are sentences short and simple, or do you chain clauses together in complex structures? How long will it be? Active or passive voice? Serious, silly, sarcastic? All of these variables are interacting in any one writing moment.


It’s a lot.


The literacy theorist James Moffett argued that much of the difficulty in writing stems from the degrees of abstraction needed to work through any one of the variables. Think of abstraction as the thinking that distance makes necessary. The further away a topic or audience or purpose, the more abstraction required, the greater the difficulty.


It’s easier to write for someone with whom you share a lot of context than it is to write for a stranger somewhere else. The further away someone is, literally or figuratively, the more you have to imagine what they need to know in order to understand what’s happening with you. If I am sitting next to you, you know a lot about what I mean without my having to say it. The meanings of the words I do say will rely on our shared context. When less is shared, the more I have to make explicit for you. It’s the difference between an inside joke among friends and explaining to an outsider why the joke is funny. Finally, the form your writing will take, from its length to its vocabulary to its structure, whether it’s a picture book or a poem or a YouTube video or a police report, of course depends on all of these.


Now think of your situation when you write a college admission essay. The topic is your own experiences. That’s not too abstract, but the task is to reflect on that topic (+abstraction) for the purpose of communicating your character and insight (++abstraction) for an audience of strangers (+++abstraction) who will be evaluating you based on criteria that are unknown to you (++++). You are also to do all of this in a form that you do not get to choose, which happens to be inflexible in its specifications and not one you use often, if at all, in other parts of your life (+++++!).


What you can do:


Think of these components of your writing situation as sliders on a control panel. To change the overall difficulty configuration, you can lower the abstraction level in one area, making it easier to handle the abstraction in another area. Slide some of the features down, at least in your head, so you can focus on others.


In other words, pretend.


Pretend about your audience in a way that makes your task easier. Choose an easier audience to write for that is similar to your real audience, only less impossible. Appoint friendly faces to your mental admissions committee: local adults whose thinking is more familiar to you, or intelligent students from your school who graduated last year and now represent the college. See if reducing the amount of guessing you must do about your audience makes other parts of the task easier.


Or, pretend about your purpose in a way that brings the task closer to your own experience. Maybe you’re already in college, and you are now telling a younger student about an important experience you had at their age. Maybe the readers are admissions staff, but they have asked you to tell them about yourself so they can plan an event for incoming students with a clearer idea of what they’re about. Maybe you mentioned the event in passing, and all you’ve been asked to do is share how it affected you or what is important to you.


Your mission is challenging, but that’s not because you’re not ready for it. It’s challenging because it is challenging, period, to describe your inner life to strangers in a short format you didn’t choose and with an evaluation attached. However, you have what you need to accomplish the mission.


With some analysis of the task and with some abstraction-reducing imagination, it is far from impossible.



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