If your student’s in the midst of applying for colleges, you probably know there’s an essay involved. (At least one.) And maybe writing comes easily to your student…or maybe it’s a huge struggle.
But either way, when your student is sitting in the living room, frustrated and stuck for words, here are 7 writing tips you can give to make your student’s essays easier.
Before we worry about editing, you’ve got to have something to edit. Here are ways to get the words down on paper.
1. Write an awful first draft.
Does this sound like your student? They sit at the computer, type two words, delete them…type four more words, delete them…sit in frustrated silence for a few minutes…
I’m sure you know this already. But they’re never going to write anything that way.
Perfectionism is the kryptonite to creativity’s Superman. The ill-timed rainstorm to creativity’s newly-straightened hair. The nail to the tire on creativity’s car.
Drill it into your student’s head. For their first draft of their essay, just have them put down one word after another.
Tell them to close their eyes and type. Type literally anything that comes to mind. Talk about the TV show they watched last night, the fact that they’re bored, the color of their wall. Just as long as they get their fingers moving, and they start putting words down.
Here’s the beauty of the first draft: nobody has to see it! And nobody will see it. Give them the freedom to write down literally anything, even if it sounds like a third-grader (or an electric blender) wrote it.
Because your student can always refine, touch up, rewrite, rework. But first, they need something to work with. And a blank page is nothing to work with.
(If you’d like to read more about writing awful first drafts, click here for an excerpt from Anne Lamott’s book on writing advice, Bird by Bird.)
2. Start writing about something else entirely.
What’s the prompt your student’s struggling with, anyway? If they’re working on the CommonApp, chances are, it’s one of these:
Great prompts. Open-ended prompts. …Intimidating prompts.
If your student is anything like me, they’ll probably take a look at prompt #5, and watch in amazement as their mind goes completely blank. “Do I even have a family?” they’ll wonder. “I haven’t ever accomplished anything. Have I?”
Not dissimilar from the now-obsolete Blockbuster Syndrome (in which you have a billion movies you’re dying to see, but forget them all the second you step into a video store).
Keeping the awful first draft thing in mind, have your student relax. Breathe. And just…write about something else. Or start writing about something as a joke.
It might seem like a waste of time–but it’s not. Because it’ll get their brain is loose and relaxed.
And when your student’s not stressing out about the fact that their essay hasn’t materialized yet, but just letting their brain hum along…that’s when something will spark the perfect memory they’ve been looking for.
3. Use the one-inch picture frame rule.
Another one of Anne Lamott’s bits of advice from Bird by Bird.
I’ll sit back and let her take this one.
“Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of–oh, say–say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier.
It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up…
It leaves me winded. I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.
It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.
This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor.”
In other words, when your student’s ramrod stiff with fear at the idea of boiling down their entire heritage, culture, and childhood to fit inside a 500-word personal statement…put your hand on their shoulder.
They don’t have to do it all right now. Right now, right this second, they just have to write as much as they can see through a one-inch picture frame.
4. Write in the morning. (Or in the evening.)
I know, I know. I was in high school once. And it started at the crack of dawn. So, writing in the morning may not be an option for your high schooler.
But if it is, and they find themselves struggling with words in the afternoon, encourage them to write in the morning or evening.
- In the morning, we (as humans) have more willpower, we’re more creative, and we’re usually in better moods. (Unless you’re a teenager getting up for high school, in which case, skip over to the “evening” section.)
- In the evening, things are winding down, you don’t have a ton of distractions, and you’ve got the whole day’s inspirations behind you.
For more of this sort of information, check out Quicksprout’s article on thinking and writing creatively.
Now that your student has their first draft ready, it’s time to clean it up.
5. Print it out. Then slash out all unnecessary words.
These personal essays usually need to be short. And if your student really got into the groove during the “creating” portion, they’re going to have a lot to cut out.
But believe it or not, that’s actually a good thing! It ensures that their final draft will really say only the most important things, and it’ll say it as directly as possible.
This is my personal philosophy with editing. Feel free to take it or leave it.
Molding a Decent Second Draft From an Awful First Draft
1. Print it out. Have something physical your student can read through, cut up, flip around, mark up with red pen.
2. Have your student sit down and read through it with a red pen. The red pen is for crossing out.
Things to look for:
- Little nuggets that make your student smile (even if it’s just a couple words!)
- Sections that seem like they’re sort-of getting at the story your student originally intended.
Things to cross out:
- Run-on thoughts that don’t lead anywhere
- Anything boring
- Anything that doesn’t relate to/detracts from the central story
- Curse words
3. After they’ve suitably marked up their rough draft, have them head back to the computer and delete everything they crossed out. Here’s the part where they can seriously reorder. They shouldn’t be afraid to get their hands messy!
Did they find a line somewhere in the middle that actually works way better as an introduction?
Does the introduction make more sense as a conclusion?
Is the third paragraph about fishing with grandpa 100% unnecessary?
4. When they’ve reordered their second draft, and they’re feeling okay about it, have them comb through for spelling errors and grammatical mistakes.
5. Repeat steps 1-4 until they’re really really really feeling solid about it. Doing six drafts is normal. All great writers have to struggle to get their words on paper.
Embrace the fine-tuning process. There can be something really magical about slowly washing away the river muck to find the flecks of gold.
6. After you’re a couple drafts in, get a trusted friend/relative/teacher to look over it and give you tips.
Once your student’s got a solid essay on their hands (or at least one that they’re not reluctant to show the outside world), encourage them to get some other eyes on it.
Remember: a stranger’s going to be reading their admissions essay. You want to be sure that your student’s story comes across the way they meant it to. (You also want to catch those last couple spelling errors that slipped through spell check.)
Some people your student might want to approach for essay-feedback:
- Their English teacher. ‘Nuff said. If you’re looking for writing experts, English teachers are usually the way to go. (Though I absolutely had an AP US History teacher who taught me worlds about writing a solid essay.)
- Your genius neighbor. Do you have a neighbor who wants your child to succeed, and has stellar writing/grammar/spelling knowledge? They’ll be removed enough to impartially read about family stories, and warm enough to give the constructive criticism you’re looking for.
- Their tutor. Are they getting tutored in any school subjects? Their tutor’s a perfect person to read through their essay and offer tips, because it’s their job. You’re literally paying them to help your student get into college. And while teachers, neighbors, or friends might be busy, tutors are essentially required to help.
7. If possible, start writing WAY ahead of time. Then let your draft sit and come back with fresh eyes.
Has your student fixed up their essay, gotten feedback, made their changes…and they’re still not 100% sure about it? There’s a chance they’ve been working too closely with it for too long.
Have them close down the essay and not look at it for at least a week. Two weeks if they can spare it. (This is why your student should start writing their essays WAY before the deadline.)
Then, when they come back and open it up again, they’ll be more detached, and have fresher eyes. And they’ll be able to spot those things they missed before. “Oh,” they’ll say, laughing. “I completely forgot to talk about grandpa’s fishing reel!”
Then they’ll have their winning essay.
If your student’s completely stuck for essay inspiration, and they’ve come to you for help, never fear! Here are the seven tips you can offer them:
- Don’t be afraid to write an awful first draft.
- Start off writing about something completely off-topic.
- Follow the one-inch picture frame rule.
- Write in the morning (or the evening).
- When they’re editing their first draft, have them print it out and start crossing things out with a red pen.
- After the first couple drafts, have someone else look over it.
- If possible, let it sit for a couple weeks, and then have them come back to it with fresh eyes.
Do you have any solid writing tips, or essay success stories from your students? Share them in the comments!
Dressler Parsons spent most of her childhood in an adobe house her father built in rural Arizona. Right now, she's taking so many business and art classes at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, and plans to graduate in Fall 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Marketing, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Intermedia. And, handily enough, her SAT scores and grades qualified her for ASU's Presidential Scholarship (worth $24,000), as well as the AIMS tuition waiver. She is passionate about showing people their potential for a bright, beautiful future. In her free time, she cooks edible things and knits inedible ones.
I have just read your essay, and I must apologise – I have absolutely no idea what it said.
When you hold this essay in your hands in a few weeks’ time, I know that you will look immediately at the mark I’ve written at the top of the first page. You will make assumptions about yourself, your work – perhaps even your worth – based on this number. I want to tell you not to worry about it.
How to survive marking dissertations
When I was a student, I assumed – as you probably do now – that my work was meticulously checked and appraised, with the due consideration it deserved, by erudite scholars who perhaps wore tweed.
I wonder now if it was actually marked by someone like me: a semi-employed thirtysomething on a zero-hours contract, sitting at home in pyjamas, staring at a hopeless pile of marking, as hopes of making it to the shops for a pint of milk today fade.
Your essay is one of 20 or so I’ve tackled in one sitting this afternoon. They are beginning to blur into one; a profusion of themes and things “to be noted” and endless variations on the phrase “It is interesting that...”.
I’m reading something you wrote on page two and I’m wondering if I just read an explanation of this concept on page one, or if that was in someone else’s essay. I have to go back a page, eyes swimming, and check.
Your essay does not stand alone, but becomes amalgamated with the others I’ve read so far today, all talking about the same things, with varying degrees of clarity. Your words are diluted by the ones that came before, they are lost on me even before I begin.
It should not be like this. In an ideal world, I would spend my morning carefully marking three essays at most, giving them the thought they deserve. I would spend the early afternoon wandering around a meadow picking flowers – something, anything, to clear my head so I can approach the next batch with a fresh outlook and enthusiasm.
Academic workload: a model approach
But I do not have that kind of time. I have academic work of my own; I have a job interview to prepare for; at various points of the year, I have additional employment to help tide me over. (And I’m only a part-time lecturer, I’m aware that my colleagues in full-time jobs have a lot more of this to do.)
I have cleared this bit of space in my schedule to read your essays, and I have come at them genuinely excited to see what you have found out this term, and to tell you how you can improve. I try to be thorough and write actual comments on your essay, even though I’m aware that I could probably get away with a few ticks, question marks and a cryptic “needs improvement”.
I’ve been at it all day and it is 6.20 pm. There are 11 unmarked essays. I could carry on, but I can’t make sense of anything you say any more. I have to force myself to understand anything other than the clearest, nicest writing; the kind of writing that takes me by the hand and shows me round all your ideas. (Dear student, please note: I am not so exhausted that I can’t spot nice writing. Do us both a favour and spend time on your essay. Make it good. Edit, polish, relieve my boredom and let me award you a first.)
I know that I should go back and reread a few essays to compare the marks I’ve given, but there isn’t time. I would like to look up the references you cite, to tell you if there are other gems in those books you may have missed, or suggest other interpretations, but there’s no chance. I also have a life – washing to do, family to spend time with, that sort of thing.
In this letter (which I’ve written with an aching hand) I ask three things of you:
- Work hard on your essays. Help people like me. It’ll open your mind, and it’ll make me happy. And I really, really want to give you a first.
- Don’t think that if you just waffle on for three pages to bring your essay up to the required word count, I won’t notice. I will.
- Do not get too upset – or complacent – because of whatever mark you’ve got. Don’t take it too personally. I’ve tried my best to be consistent and fair, and other lecturers will moderate my marking, but really, by a certain stage, I’m just pulling numbers out of the air. (55? 58? I don’t know)
Teaching at a university means constant pressure - for about £5 an hour
Your essay does not stand alone; it’s either going to impress me or sap my energy, and if it does the latter, it affects how I read the ones which come afterwards. Too many awful essays and I can’t concentrate anymore.
The books on your reading list will tell you everything about the subject that you need to know; read them. There are also books in the library with titles like How to Write an Essay; make use of them. If you don’t understand something, come along to my office hour. I’ve gone on about it all term, and you know where that is.
All the best,
Join the higher education network for more comment, analysis and job opportunities, direct to your inbox. Follow us on Twitter @gdnhighered. And if you have an idea for a story, please read our guidelines and email your pitch to us at email@example.com