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"Writing College Admissions Essays: Who Cares? You Do." Guest Blog Part 2

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

Post 2 of 3 (Read Part 1)

Writing College Admissions Essays: Who Cares? You Do

Anne Elrod Whitney, Ph.D.

When you let your emotions tell you what makes the writing challenging, you can use your creative mind to alter the writing situation responsively to those emotions. You still won’t come away saying college admissions essays are easy to write. Almost no important writing is easy. Yet you just may find it more rewarding.

Even the most experienced and successful writers won’t tell you that writing is easy. Sure, those writers get familiar with its problems and have strategies to address them; writing does get easier. Still, writing that is important to the writer never gets easy.

College essays sure aren’t easy. I described in a previous post how the college essay (like any writing task) is shaped by the levels of abstraction required. Understanding that—and a bit of imagination—can help make writing your college admission essay less difficult.

Another difficulty for seniors writing admission essays sounds obvious, but it really does need to be said: If you’re writing one, you want to be admitted to a college!

Now your emotions are involved.

So is your ego. So are your parents, along with their emotions and their egos, sometimes.

Emotional investment can make writing much harder, but they also can make your writing both easier and better. The key is to identify what those emotions are, then get and use the information those emotions carry.

Emotions are informative. For example, I have always had “nerves” when performing music in public. I struggled for years to get rid of these because they messed me up on stage: if singing, my voice shook. If speaking, I spoke too fast. But in piano, these feelings were magnified beyond my typical level. I had my first piano recital at the age of 40, and I still have never played well in a recital. Performing on the piano, especially my first few recitals, I made mistakes that I never made in practice. It was so frustrating to practice and prepare, to get a piece of music absolutely ready to go, then not be able to show the audience what I was really capable of. However, I had a gifted piano teacher who gave me a gift: she taught me that my “nerves” were actually full of important information. They were trying to help me.

Those nerves told me that I cared, deeply, about how I did. I was proud of what I had learned. Starting an instrument as an adult is no joke. Turns out, older brains really are less sponge-like than younger ones, and worse yet, there’s nobody around in my adult life to make me practice. I had accomplished something to get to that first recital, and my pounding heart showed me that I really was invested. Those nerves told me, too, that I was afraid. Very afraid. I hadn’t actually known that going into the recital; I thought this recital in a church basement alongside the little kids who were my teacher’s other students was “just for fun!” That day helped me understand a lot about how I encounter “beginner phase” in all areas of my life.

All of this applies to the college admissions essay. You care how it turns out, and it’s likely you have a whole set of additional emotions too. These emotions, and the way they cause you to consider how you may be regarded by others as well as your own feelings about the coming transition to college. That raises the stakes.

Let’s take it apart:

First, the topic of the essay is yourself. Writing about yourself is already kind of difficult if you care at all how you appear to others. And when you’re undergoing an evaluation, of course you’re aware that the person doing the evaluating has only a small part of the total complicated picture of who you are. Your emotions in the moment connect to this, and it’s easy to see yourself negatively in the wavy glass of the mirror.

Second, the audience is emotionally charged. Obviously the audience for the college essay is a person or group of people at a college or university, but who are these people? What do they know and not know about my topic? In this case, they know nothing about your topic, since the topic is you. But in another way, they know exactly what they want. Maybe that’s you. Maybe it isn’t. Not only is this audience “far away” in the sense of familiarity, but they’re also far away in the sense of power in this situation. You’re “writing up” to a reader who has power over you, which is one of the most difficult ways to write. It’s hard not to freeze up when the stakes are high.

Purpose: The purpose is to get them to like you. Or not exactly to like you, but to think you’re the kind of student they want. But: what kind do they want? Are you sure? (See “audience” above). How can you be successful in achieving a purpose you can’t really know? It’s maddening. And while your purpose it to get them to pick you, you’re also not supposed to name your goal directly. If you’re asking someone on a date, you don’t say “hey, want to come eat with me so I can find out whether you are compatible future sex partner and/or spouse?” Same reason you don’t open your essay with “Please admit me to your university; I am feeling very nervous about it.”

Form: The form isn’t up to you, so you can’t flex it around to align with all the rest of the variables. Someone has decided for you that it shall be of a certain length, in a certain kind of English, entered into a particular form with a pre-set prompt. School often does this, and it’s another site of difficulty.

It’s even more difficult if you have been in classrooms where most writing is about academic content like English literature or economics. When I taught high school seniors, it was not uncommon for them to ask of the college essay, “Am I allowed to use the first person?” when that person was, after all, the topic of the writing. They weren’t stupid of course; however, they had been taught to avoid the first person in the grades before, out of a societal bias toward “facts” as being something other than personal.

It is current graduates, after all, who have been educated under the influence of educational policies so heavy on argumentative writing from textual evidence and so light on personal narrative or on any kind of experiential evidence that the author of the Common Core literacy standards notoriously remarked in its defense that “nobody really gives a shit what you think or feel.” Many college-bound students have been made to feel that the only intelligent writing is analytical writing. And now, when it really counts, they spring personal writing on you?

To work through this mess, here are two words of advice: Information and Pretending.

Remember, feelings are a source of information for you, about you. Spend intentional time noticing what emotions, exactly, are in play as you approach, draft, and revise college admissions essays. What is happening in your body when you think about them, when you sit at your computer to write them, when you read what you have written? What voices are in your mind as you write it—supportive voices cheering you on, judgmental voices criticizing it before you’ve even written it, a mixture of voices? What do these feelings say about you and the moment you are in? A body scan meditation can help. So can an unfiltered “brain dump” where you just get all the feelings out in front of you. Knowing and accepting whatever emotions are there is a big step for moving forward.

Second is pretending. I mentioned in my last post how pretending could help with abstraction, and it also helps with writing amidst strong emotions. Imagine the situation into something joyful or at least something less scary. Maybe you imagine, in place of your real audience of strangers, an adult you do know who can stand in for them in your mind. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have had a teacher or mentor who regards you generously and is rooting for you. Pretend that person just got a job in admissions.

Better yet is to pretend you’ve already been admitted, and now you’re just sitting in a room with the people who chose you. They want to know you better. Or pretend that you know exactly what they are looking for, and it happens to be someone with exactly your characteristics, background, and ideas. Now the task is a descriptive one: the question of whether you’re a match is solved and it’s just a matter of showing them how. Be Simone Biles explaining how she got interested in gymnastics. Be Shakespeare talking about why he wrote all those plays. This kind of pretending shifts your focus from proving yourself (which is an unwinnable headgame) to actually communicating clearly (which is actually critically important).

When you let your emotions tell you what makes the writing challenging, you can use your creative mind to alter the writing situation responsively to those emotions. You still won’t come away saying college admissions essays are easy to write. Almost no important writing is easy. Yet you just may find it more rewarding.

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