Zen and the art of the college essay

A recent article in the New York Times, “Best, Brightest and Rejected: Elite Colleges Turn Away Up to 95 per cent”


A recent article in the New York Times, “Best, Brightest and Rejected: Elite Colleges Turn Away Up to 95 per cent” confirmed what we in college admissions counseling already know: With regard to getting into college, the stakes are getting higher and the acceptances are going down.

For most of the past six decades, overall enrollment boomed, while the number of seats at elite colleges and universities grew much more slowly, making them steadily more selective  . . . counselors and admissions officers say, the pool of high-achieving applicants continues to grow, fed partly by a rising number from overseas.

In response to the increased pressure, parents are trying to find innovative ways to make their kids stand out. Those with the means to do so are sending their kids on exotic summer excursions to beef up their resumes and provide juicy material for their college essays.

Students preparing to apply to college are increasingly tailoring their summer plans with the goal of creating a standout personal statement — 250 words or more — for the Common Application . . . Specialized, exotic and sometimes costly activities, they hope, will polish a skill, cultivate an interest and put them in the spotlight in a crowded field of straight-A students with strong test scores, community service hours and plenty of extracurricular activities.

The excerpt above was taken from an article entitled “For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers,” which appeared a few years ago in The New York Times. The article describes the adventures of students exploring the ancient tombs of the Ming dynasty in the Purple Mountain region of Nanjing, studying health care in Rwanda, veterinary medicine in the Caribbean or cell cloning at Brown University.

Extreme times, as they say, call for extreme measures.

But what if you don’t have the money to go to Rwanda or even to build houses for families that need them in Tijuana? What do you write about then? And even if you do have the money, how do you write the most important essay of your life in a form you’ve never even heard of (the personal essay), when the stakes are so high?

In my thirty years of helping students write essays that tip the scales in their favor, I have not met a single student who approached the prospect of writing this essay with anything but extreme anxiety, even dread.

Face-to-face with a blank page (or screen, as it may be), students are often plagued with that which shall not be named — Writer’s Bl*#k. They have no idea what a college essay is. They don’t know what to write about. They have no idea where to begin.

Most students, left to their own devices, begin by writing an introduction. Of course they do. This is how they’ve been taught to write the infamous five-paragraph essay (though even in this form, introducing a subject before you know what you want to say is a recipe for — you’ve got it — that which shall not be named).

But if you don’t begin at the beginning, where do you begin?

The first thing I do when working with students is disabuse them of the idea that Product and Process are the same. I show them sample essays as models for what is possible — not immediately, but after I have them locate significant moments in the landscape of their lives — but I make it very clear from the get-go that knowing where you’re going (Product) and getting there (Process) are not the same.

Although the finished product will, we hope, flow, be clear and be well organized, the process of coming up with ideas and getting them down on paper is anything but.

In fact, generally speaking, it’s a big mess.

And that’s OK. In fact, that’s what we’re looking for.

In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”

Or, as I like to say, You must get lost in order to get found.

But how do you get lost? This is something that should be taught in school. Getting lost is an art in and of itself. And it requires a kind of letting-go not unfamiliar to the masters of Zen.

Thirty years of experience helping students write the best essay of their lives has taught me there is no one way to write. Any way that works is a good way. I have also seen that, indeed, there are ways to tame the inner critic and awaken the muse. Using the method that follows, there is no need for anxiety. In fact, you can check your anxiety at the door. Here are five steps to get you started:

Locate moments in your life that have changed you. They can be small moments or big moments. You went into the experience one person; you came out changed. Jot these moments down using bullet points, bullet points only. The time I fell through the ice . . . the time my dad choked on an olive . . .

Free Write about these moments. Write everything that comes to mind. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, spelling or organization. Just write write write. The Free Write is the single most important step of the process. The only requirement: Write full sentences.

Go back and expand what you’ve written. Ask yourself questions. The W’s are very useful here: When was this? Who was I with? Where did this happen? What was important about this experience? This I call The Expanded Free Write.

Ultimately, your college essay must tell a story. Once a student has written a Free Write, I often take the time to explain the difference between Showing, Telling and Reflecting and that all three must be present in the college essay. I then ask him or her to go back and bring the story to life: Be specific. Go into detail. Use dialogue instead of indirect discourse. Tell it as a story unfolding in time and space.

You’ll notice we still don’t have a topic. Now is the time to take a look at what you’ve written to figure out what you’re trying to say. Most books on how to write college essays advise you to do it the other way around. They suggest you start with a topic. Sometimes that works. You can do that if you like. Just don’t get attached to it because often, given half a chance, the wand will find the wizard.

The steps you will need to take next are essential; they require you make order out of chaos. This involves a different part of the brain. By the time you mobilize your team of organizers and inner critics, however, you’ve already got something to work with. And that’s a heck of lot better than staring at a blank page.



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