Your essay is mental
Your college essay starts in your mind and with your mind.
It seems like your college essay begins on the blank page, I know. But all words have a murky pre-history in the mind. So it’s important to know what our minds are really like, what conditions in there are shaping, selecting, and producing those critical words. If we’re serious about writing with the “sincerity” and “honesty” colleges hope to detect, then we better know what drives us. And the biggest threat to progress is not examining our minds for the problems they make.
So when you– the writer, the student– mind your mind, you increase the possibilities for great outcomes in your college essays, and (since real life matters) in the world. Better word and better world. This is why our college essay projects at Essay Intensive begin with the state of your mind and end with the transformation of your life. If you agree that it could be cool to give this essay bigger context, meaning and impact, read on. If not, you know, go have a snack and get on to writing!
Dr. King did it
Dr. King knew how to write what was on his mind, but not without looking skillfully at what was in it first. Along with many other unsung civil rights activists, Martin Luther King Jr worked (himself to death) for a better word and world. As is true for of your best personal writing, language was his power tool– the familiar language of the people, but used in new, stimulating, and even acrobatic ways. To change what people do, you have to change how they think. And how they feel. Direct them towards positive possibilities, even (especially) in dire circumstances. This doesn’t take SAT words. It takes something much more basic.
A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us in “The Letter from Birmingham Jail”; this unrelenting honesty and urgency of the letter is admirable. Every year, reading it with my 7th graders, I cry. I ask them what they think this threat consists of.
The threat to progress
The “threat” turns out to be not so simple as some bigoted, beefy, neighborhood white guy, brandishing a bat at the oppressed in the thorny labyrinth of despair. If anything, this “threat” is much more universal; in fact, it lies in the mind of each of us, at the root of all emotion and action.
This threat is hatred. Now, you (reader) might be saying, that’s all good, but I just wanted to start my college essay, and I’m reading this blog to help me do that, so what, exactly, are you getting at?
OK! This hatred in its subtler forms in the mind is the real threat to writing your college essay too; it’s not uncommon to undermine your own positive efforts by pre-judging your efforts; by thinking negatively of yourself, your options, your life material. Or even of others, those who you perceive as having worked against you, or as in competition with you, or not insightful enough to admit you automatically to their school. But any Negativity blocks forward movement. It keeps us stuck in models that don’t work, and dulls the imagination.
The key? Seek positive transformation
Effective personal writing– from Montaigne’s essays all the way to yours– is effective because it unabashedly digs for the roots of action and emotion. Personal writing that is inherently positivity– an affirmation of life– keeps its momentum going by honestly examining and refashioning old stories, and seeks transformation from head (literally) to toe.
Your personal essay is a chance to look at the root of emotion and action in yourself, and then– and only then– connect yourself with a larger story or pattern in the world. This process is equal parts grueling and gratifying. You are writing the script of your own humanity. Not a task for the faint of heart.
I say to all my students– when we look at what we want to change in the world, that external stuff that is so deeply bothersome, unethical, immoral, wrong–or what has most challenged us and duped us, let’s start with how we can change our minds. Stake your claims carefully and with your whole self. Mind your mind. Then start writing.