First write a bad college essay draft to write a great essay
I spend a lot of my time helping students unfreeze, and accept that if they first write a “bad” college essay draft, it might be THE most important step to a great draft. This blog came from a bunch of “you can write your essay” pep talks I gave to students over the past few weeks (and years!).
** It’s very paralyzing if you think you have to have a finished product before you even really started your college essay!**
Most students don’t know how to write a narrative essay– I didn’t either, back when. But fretting about a lack of a skill never taught it to you. If it did, we’d all be amazing at things we never tried, but fretted a lot about. 🙂
In fact, anxiety about the essay is exactly what will stop you from writing a great personal essay. You need to understand, hack, and tap into– the organic writing process.
What’s the solution? FLOW.
(Too Impatient for a pep talk? Cut right to getting expert help writing your college essay draft HERE.)
A few essential reminders about writing college essay DRAFTS
BTW: Even though I use the term “bad” throughout, I’m just using the language my students use. We should NOT call it a “bad” draft! There is nothing good or bad about it! It’s just… a draft!
You might not even know the best college essay topic before you start writing!
The search for a great college essay topic and totally great essay is noble and important, even critical. However, in my experience, you often have to write into a topic idea before you can be sure if it will work well or not.
This is true for the supplemental essays and the Common App essays. It’s also true for…basically all writing!
What sounds like a good idea while scaffolding might be less evocative (as in: not work) in execution. THAT IS A NORMAL PART OF THE PROCESS.
The order goes: bad draft, good draft, great draft (but it can take way way more than three attempts!). And the writing might even take you in a whole other better direction.
Craft comes later (though structure should be considered sooner!)
Students can get in their own way being impatient with the stages of bad college essay→ great draft. They can overly interrogate craft elements too early, like how the essay begins. Write a bad beginning, for now! You’ll figure your opener out after you have sufficient content in place!
Remember, the (very, best) beginning is often the LAST thing any writer figures out– literally! A hook or opener can always be workshopped.
Ditto to the last line. Write a bad last line. A great one will occur to you later.
The important thing is: keep writing and following your inner voice, association, and instincts. Sometimes you know EXACTLY where to go deeper, you’re just holding yourself back.
How you think– and your inner voice– is part of who you are!
Navigating a stark challenge is NOT the only way to communicate to admissions readers who you are and that you’ve got what it takes to be a really wonderful asset to a campus community.
How you think about things IS a reflection of who you are. After all, what will you do at school? Think hard about things!
You might use the bad draft as a space to be awkward: to reflect on and even scrutinize yourself, your behaviors, your tendencies, your values.
Externalize your inner voice and intellectual processes to get there. Do it badly first! You’re trying to fit often subconscious material into legible sentences. It’s not easy. Don’t stop yourself.
Let your voice emerge because …you don’t get in the way of it by shushing it or telling it to sound like someone else’s.
Think about it: have you ever fully used your voice before? It needs exercise, time and space to emerge! And luckily google docs never seems to run out of pages. 🙂
Great Sample Essays Required Students do a LOT of work (you just can’t see it!)
Do NOT be fooled by the quality of those sample admissions essays published on the internet or that your counselor handed out.
ANY great college essay you read (college admissions or otherwise) went through many, many, many drafts – “bad” drafts– and stages to get there. I PROMISE YOU.
Rarely do we sketch out the essay and know immediately THIS IS GREAT. Yes, some students have a pressing element of their life they KNOW could be a great story– but that STILL doesn’t mean any essay itself (the execution of the idea) is great right away.
In fact, almost every great essay starts out as a bad essay. Did I mention that? Don’t worry, you can cut repetition later. But you can’t test if your idea is viable later (when you dress up the language and mend typos). That has to happen NOW.
It will free you up and you’ll get something down.
How to get that bad essay down on the page? Freewrite!
Write a lot without stopping for a set period of time or length.
This is called “freewriting,” a creative technique I learned in high school from amazing English teachers at St. Ann’s School (where I later taught) during our Writing Marathon Week. I used it again in college at Brown University, where the writing requirements were high wire and voluminous.
I used it to survive the writing intensity of my MFA program at Naropa University (that and jumping jacks!). I used it to KEEP WRITING under extreme stress and the chaos and unpredictability of raising 4 children and caring for newborns while winning the bread.
What I’m saying is: you can do it.
Write without editing too much at first. This is because editing is a distraction from the priority, even if it is a bit uncomfortable to have the raw writing there when you would never submit in that form. Just keep yourself in your chair and write until you have at least 1 page, or for 5 minutes minimum.
Hey, Inner critic: nap now, overwork later!
You need to reassure your inner critic/editor (sometimes out loud) that they should rest now because their skills and acuity will be in high, high demand in a few weeks to revise your college essays.
It’s NORMAL to write parts of your essay you will later cut. Almost every writer I know does this! BLOAT that essay. Let it go way past word count. Follow the tangent to see if it goes somewhere useful to the theme or not.
DO NOT decide in advance how good it is!
Your inner critic will have a big and formidable job– LATER. They will get you to great. (So will I!).
Repeat after me: I’m going to write a bad college essay draft (and love the process)
If you got this far, repeat after me, I’m going to write a bad college essay draft, so I can write an absolutely great one.
I’m not going to interrupt my bad draft to decide if it’s great.
I’m not going to throw out my bad draft because it doesn’t yet sound great.
I am going to love my bad essay for the newborn that it is, and workshop it into being a great one.
Write a bad draft relentlessly, and then evaluate. It’s liberating! Take a small thing and look all the way into it– where it opens out into the universe– for unique connections, submerged stories and interesting patterns.
Get Help Making Your College Essay Great
And then, of course, let someone else who is an excellent reader and gives clear actionable feedback– help you make it great. Maybe that’s me. Maybe that’s your teacher.
I promise: you’ll never get my blessing to submit that bad version of your essay. You’ll go through many many draft iterations (10+?) – and then, we hope, you’ll love it.
Want to talk out your bad college essay idea, dig deeper for compelling material, or learn more about the process of writing a great college essay? We got you covered.
Book a complimentary 30-min consultation HERE to learn more about my support and how you, too, can write the college essays of your life.