Help your students get started on the College Essay

Does this scene sound familiar? Your student is sitting down, staring at a fresh sheet of paper, pencil poised in hand, but not writing anything. It can happen for an AP Language paper or a college essay. The students say they feel stuck; they call it writer’s block.


Many of Wow’s college essay and creative writing students have shared a version of this story with our coaches before starting the writing process.


No matter what the writing task may be, when students feel stuck, they often doubt their basic writing skills. That makes getting started feel even harder. The student feels trapped; their parent feel helpless. Anxiety can creep into the home, school, and you can probably feel the stress in your offices! As a result, students sometimes tend to avoid writing the first draft by continually searching for “better” topics. This won’t work.


When this happens with your students, it’s okay to give yourself permission to take a step back. First and foremost, it’s important for you to understand that writing skills and topic are not the culprits here.  These students are not really stuck; they’ve just jumped the gun. They are unprepared to write a first draft because they’ve skipped important beginning steps in the writing process.


Find the Real Starting Line


The famous author Flannery O’Connor said that, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Writing is a great tool for exploring ideas and clarifying thoughts. This is true with any kind of writing project, and it’s especially true for the college essay.


Admissions readers want to see stories that are personal and reveal meaningful traits and characteristics about the writer, your student. They want to know something unique about each applicant.


To do that, students need to take the time to clarify their own feelings about the story they want to write. At Wow, we usually assign two or three brief writing exercises before tackling the first draft to give students low-stakes opportunities to gather details, organize their thoughts, and warm up their minds. After all, this is a thinking task, even more than it is a writing task. You don’t need to do all of that. But you can certainly help get your students started and on the right track.


Here’s a writing exercise you can give to any student who is feeling stuck:


  • Set a timer for 10 minutes
  • Think of the story you want to tell your best friend
  • Write down any detail about that story that comes to mind.
  • While writing, keep your mind open to physical details (what you saw, heard, touched) as well as emotional details (what you were thinking and feeling).
  • You don’t need to write in chronological order or even use complete sentences. It’s okay to be messy. Just write down every detail that comes to mind as fast as you can think of them until the timer runs out.


This exercise works because it removes the pressure that’s often associated with writing a “draft.” The time limit is important. The feeling of racing against the clock help to turn off the second-guessing and self-editing parts of our brain is real, and, when that happens, it’s amazing to see what kinds of details students come up with.


Whatever is on the page when the timer goes off, your teen will have spent 10 minutes refreshing their memory about the story they want to tell, and they’ll have a stockpile of details that they can draw from when they write their first draft.


Would you like more tips like these?


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Feel free to email me with questions? We offer free training webinars for counselors, too. Meanwhile, we probe deeper and answer all 5 of those questions in our book. To show you how much we appreciate the work you do, we’d like to give you a free electronic copy of How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents. You’ll find out how to get free books for every parent in your school when you click on the book link.


Joe Kane is Senior Writing Coach at Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company staffed by experts who understand the writing process inside and out. Since 2009, Wow has been leading the industry with our unique approach to communicating any message effectively. The Wow Method helps business and nonprofit leaders create better blogs, manage social media, develop websites and create other communication materials. It also helps students write college application essays, grad school personal statements and resumes that get results. If it involves words, Wow can help.