This is the beginning of college essay season, when students start composing that 500-word paper, which may be the deciding factor in their acceptance to a prestigious/hoped-for school. I have helped many with these essays for the past 13 years, and my students, I am proud to say, have been accepted to Princeton, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, NYU, Michigan, Emerson, UCLA, USC, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, California College of the Arts and many more fine colleges, as well as schools for advanced degrees in medicine, dentistry, pharmacology, and law. The personal essay process is always the same. Slow and painful are the words that come to mind.
Finding a topic is the first major decision and this does not come easily. The topics offered to write on are standard: a person, experience, fictional character, or issue that has influenced you or a topic of your choice, meaning something that is so exceptional that you must communicate this information to the admissions committee. Discerning the right topic can be as easy as an instant “Ah ha!” to a laborious “No, that idea isn’t very good either.” We talk a long time before the student starts writing, weeding out the essay on Mom or Dad, unless one or the other has done something beyond being a supportive parent. We also rule out any essay that is a travelogue since these are boring, though we might very well settle on a topic inspired by a trip, such as an unusual/fascinating person met while traveling. This stage of the process is tough, but is followed by a slightly more relaxed phase: First Draft Writing.
Writing the body paragraphs of an essay is easy for some and like delivering a 30-pound baby for others. My method is to time my student in 10 – 15 minute increments and then have them read me what they’ve written. This way, they have less fear since it’s only a few minutes of writing, and I can closely monitor their progress so they don’t veer too far off track. After the initial draft, then we go into the next phase: deepening or what could be better described as Therapy 101.
At this phase of the essay, we have a rudimentary essay with no great insights. We have the skeleton of what will come once we begin to dig deep. Now this is where the therapy comes in. I read through what my students has written about a person or event or experience and I start asking what I would ask of a client in therapy (and, yes, I am a Licensed Professional Counselor). “Could you tell me more about that?” “What exactly were you feeling when that happened?” “How has that experience/person/world event impacted you personally?” My students start out looking slightly wary, and often say, “Do I really have to go into that?” and my answer is always, “Only if you want an exceptional essay.” That usually motivates them to start digging. But then we move to Phase II in the excavation process.
“You said here that your brother/cousin/best friend/mentor was helpful. Tell me more about that.” Oh dear, this is when the resistance starts and words such as, “Maybe this isn’t the right topic” or “I’m thinking I have a better idea,” begin to crop up. At this point, if the essay is proceeding appropriately, my response is, “Let’s just keep going for now. You can write a second essay after this one if you truly don’t like it.” The goal: just to keep pushing through to the end.
We finally get the straight solid narrative on the page – meaning the story with a beginning, middle and end and it’s usually 1800 words. Both my student and I are starting to feel happy. “Ah, this is pretty good,” I often hear. This is when I have to break the news: “Yes, it is and now we’re going to start cutting it down to 500 words.” Oh my, this is not a happy sentence. Stricken looks appear and shoulders start to slump. “But that is impossible. It’s just right. We’ll never get it down to just those few words. Ah, but yes we will…now we’re at the Cut and Slash phase.
This is actually one of my favorite points in the essay process – line-by-line reflection and questioning. “Is this what you really mean here?” Or, “Is this word/phrase/line really needed? Could we cut it and not lose the meaning?” One sentence at a time, we work our way through the essay, assessing and cutting, assessing and cutting. That will bring us down to 1000 words for sure. Ah, but we have 500 more words to cut. What to do now? Dig Deeper Phase III.
This is when the essence of the essay begins to reveal itself. This is the moment when we may recognize that the essay isn’t about what was initially thought, but is rather about an altogether different realization. This is when Therapy 101 moves to Therapy 202 and I start to question even further. “What did you learn from this experience? How does this learning affect your day-to-day life now? What do you do differently as a result? Tell me the truth here, no platitudes.” Ah…there are some long pauses here as the contemplation begins. Finding the deeper meaning of a person/event/experience goes to the very heart of the essay and requires no glib, “Let’s hurry and get it finished” answer. Unfortunately, this means we have added not deleted from the word count and now we must enter Cut and Slash II. But this time, hopefully, we have a shape in mind while we edit and our spirits are lighter.
S & C II is a stripping away of all the nonessential elements so the core of the essay can be revealed. This is again a meticulous process, but there is now hope of completion so everyone is sitting up straighter and breathing a little deeper. Ah, is it possible we might actually come up with something worth reading? Yes, it’s starting to look that way. And then we have that voila moment when every sentence is picked clean of debris and the prose is starting to feel taut like the head of a drum and as you re-read the essay it has rhythm and life and movement and you’re down to those last two sentences and everything is perfect except for them.
Now we’re at the “Oh, Come On!” stage of pulling out the big Roget’s Thesaurus and poring over page after page to find the perfect word for that last sentence until all of a sudden there it is and it goes into place and then whack! the whole essay resonates and feels tight and compressed and overflowing with meaning and my student and I are smiling and laughing and high-fiving while tears stream down our faces.
Yes, that’s when I know that we are done and this child will soon be heading off to a wonderful school where they will grow and change and become more than they are now and I can sit back and glow with pride and say, “Yes, there goes another one of my little birds off into flight.”