Day 28: How to Write a College Essay

The idea of condensing all your life experiences into one pithy, 650-word personal statement fills nearly all of us with existential dread. #metoo. One of my most important roles as Director of College Placement at Al-Noor Academy, New England’s first full-time Islamic K12 school, is shepherding my charges through that terrifying rite of passage: the college essay. I used to tell my seniors how easy these things were to write, but my words probably rang hollow, because deep down I was just as scared of writing college essays as they were. 

I tried to do my best. We would read excerpts from Harry Bauld’s fantastic On Writing the College Application Essay; we would watch the College Essay Guy’s high-quality videos and seminars; we would do brainstorming exercises to dislodge ideas. My favorite is courtesy of College Thoughts, an excellent independent college counseling firm with whom, full disclosure, I have a professional relationship. The exercise asks you to imagine that your entire mind would be wiped and you could retain only ten memories. What would they be? Would they all be happy, or would you want to remember your wounds as well? It is amazing how many fantastic essays are living in those ten memories.

But, when it came to college essays, I was focused way too much on telling, very little on showing, and not at all on doing. One day, November 7, 2022 to be precise, I sat down at my desk after returning from morning prayers at my local mosque and, for the first time in more than 25 years, wrote a college essay. It was intended as a one-off that I could show my students during the next class. It was about a personal epiphany: I hated doing the NY Times crossword because I had always used a pen to complete it. Using this metaphor, I identified one of my core flaws: I have always forced myself to do things perfectly the first time. This trait held me back from leaning into the discomfort of being a beginner. But it also made me shy away from many of my greatest strengths, chief amongst them writing.

The need to produce the final draft in one sitting, my M.O. throughout high school and college, had produced stellar academic results. But I had convinced myself that I could not write until the deadline pressure was so intense that I had no other choice. During my undergraduate years at Harvard, I would start any paper under 10 pages at about midnight the night before it was due. By 8 am, I usually had a great essay, but my gas tank was empty. This technique meant that writing activated my fight or flight response, and for years I had been fleeing.

When I reached the final paragraph of that first essay, a quixotic idea popped into my head: what if I pushed myself to write a college essay every day for 30 days? I had engaged in the mother of all 30-for-30 challenges—fasting for the entire month of Ramadan—for nearly 30 years. 

Although most westerners assume that Ramadan is the most dreaded month of the year, in fact, for me and many of my fellow Muslims, it is by far our favorite. It is not easy; I can’t tell you how many times the “not even water?” question has come up on the tennis court. The long evening prayers in which the entire Quran is recited over the course of 30 nights severely disrupt my usually non-negotiable sleep schedule. But the communal striving during the month is so rewarding. The feel of that first sip of water as it makes its serpentine way to the stomach and the flavor of that sugary date as we break our fast are only trumped by the sweetness of faith, which can only be tasted by tireless striving to tame our lower selves.

Now that this month of writing is nearly over, it’s only natural that people will ask me the keys to writing a good college essay, so here are some of my thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Show your core values and beliefs through concrete, true stories
    • Stories are catnip to admissions officer’s souls. Don’t tell admissions officers what you believe and value, show them by choosing memorable, poignant stories that subtly reveal what makes you you.
  • Keep an ideas journal
    • College essays can be about literally anything. Forget the prompts. Observe the world around you and when something interesting pops into your mind, write it down immediately, ideally in the form of an essay title or first line.
  • Let your inner muse lead
    • Don’t overplan your essays. Once you have an idea just try to write it out in one sitting with your phone on airplane mode.
  • Focus on openers and closers
    • Your opening line is your Boardwalk, and your closing one is Park Place—make them count, or else you must return to jail and not collect $200.
  • Separate writing and editing
    • Produce a “zero draft,” ideally by hand, in one sitting of roughly 45 minutes. Save the wordsmithing for later drafts. When you can’t think of a word or are tempted to look something up on the internet, write ______ and come back to it later.
  • Don’t worry about word count 
    • Every great essay started out way too long. Just focus on getting your story out and save the fat-trimming for the second or third draft.
  • Be liberal in your usage of paragraphs
    • Long chunks of text are intimidating. Once you’ve finished 5 sentences or so, consider giving your reader a break.
  • Limit your readers; don’t workshop your essay to death
    • Most college essays are a disjointed mish-mash of suggestions from too many editors, the proverbial design by committee. Have no more than two or three trusted advisors and feel free to reject their advice. Your essay must be yours alone.
  • Show vulnerability
    • If you’re not afraid for your friends (or your parents) to read your essay, you’re probably not there yet. If you haven’t taken a risk, start over. When tears well up and you get goosebumps, know that you’re on the right track.
  • Don’t sound the “trumpets of triumph”
    • You’re 17 or 18 years old; you haven’t figured everything out; it’s ok to acknowledge that you’re still a work in progress. So am I.
  • Honesty, honesty, honesty
    • Avoid artifice. Make sure every line in your essay represents a genuine belief. The BS detectors of admissions officers are finely tuned, and anything done “to help you get into college” will probably have the opposite effect.
  • Kill your darlings
    • We all fall in love with a great turn of phrase or paragraph that took hours to perfect but just doesn’t fit. To soften the blow of cutting it, put it into a “chaff” file. There may well be wheat in what you’ve written that you can use in a future essay.
  • Vary sentence structure
    • Series of subject-verb-object sentences lull readers to sleep. Long sentences confuse them. Except when they don’t. Learn how to use THAMOs, SWABIs, and FANBOYS.
  • Read it out loud to find the music
    • The best way to edit is to read your prose aloud. If it sounds awkward, it almost certainly is. Re-work it until it sings.
  • Let the micro reflect the macro; find the macro in the micro
    • Metaphorical intelligence is the ability to connect two things in a novel way, like Ramadan and a college essay challenge. It is probably the most consistent trait displayed by my Harvard classmates.
  • Change your mindset
    • Sit down with optimism. Tell yourself you got this. Have fun. Shifting your mindset is the sneaky key to almost everything in life.
  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good
    • No one has yet written the perfect essay, so why are you pressuring yourself to do an impossible task?
  • Find your own walk
    • Try to do a few unexpected things with your writing that make it stand out from the crowd. Try a “Yoda” sentence or verb at the end of the sentence put. The very best writing has such a distinct voice that anyone would recognize it even if your name were omitted from the top. But this takes years of practice and is far from a requirement.
  • Salt with humor; pepper with pathos
    • Unseasoned essays are bland. Occasional humor, sometimes self-deprecating, will reassure admissions officers they’re not admitting a stiff. But don’t shy away from sharing genuine emotion.
  • Find le mot juste
    • Don’t settle for the wrong word. Use vivid verbs, specific nouns, apt adjectives, and limit your adverbs. But don’t try to do all of this until draft 2 or 3.
  • Write at least five different essays before deciding which to use
    • Your life is complicated and beautiful, and you have so much to share. Don’t fixate on one or two ideas. Fear of hard work is holding you back. Overcome it. Plus, there’s probably a way to keep the best parts of more than one of your “zero drafts.”

My final piece of advice is for the adults. Challenge yourself to some sort of 30-for-30 challenge. Choose something that scares you that you know will be hard. Maybe even try to write some college/personal reflection essays of your own—they’re really just a gimmicky way to start your autobiography and figure out what you’ve been thinking all these years. You might be surprised by how much you find.

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