How to Help Your Students Overcome Writing Anxiety on the College Essay

Every writer feels nervous in the moments when they are revising, starting over or drafting a new piece of prose. So it’s not surprising when even students who are well-prepared, understand the college essay prompt, and have a great story to tell also get the first-draft jitters, or writing anxiety.


In a few months, college application season will swing into full gear, and just like every season, we expect to see a lot of students who have difficulty starting their first drafts. You probably see it too. That’s okay. We know how to calm them, and we can help you lessen the anxiety among your students, too.


Some students think that their nervousness is a sign that they’re inadequate writers or that they’re doing something wrong. It isn’t. College essays have high stakes. Feeling a little anxiety is normal, even healthy. It’s important to let your students know it’s okay to feel a little nervous.


I am a college essay coach, and also a creative writer and teacher. I regularly attend an annual writers’ conference that attracts big names in fiction and poetry, plus thousands of aspiring writers and publishers, for a weekend of readings and craft discussions. At my first conference, I was surprised to hear how openly authors talked about their own writing anxiety.


Even authors with four or five books already on the best seller list said that they feel a bit anxious every time they start a new writing project. Their previous works might have been hits, but what should they do about the half-written chapters on their kitchen tables? How do successful writers manage those nerves?


Here are three strategies you can share with your students to help them manage their writing anxiety:


1)Keep the Faith. Explain to your students that it’s important they accept that some anxiety is normal, and they should trust themselves to write the first draft.  Moments of doubt require a little faith. When they are feeling nervous, they should just keep writing without stopping until the draft is finished. Successful writers keep writing even when they are feeling unsure of themselves.


2) Trust the Process. This is key. Let students know they should take comfort in revision. No one gets it perfect on the first try. Refining ideas over several drafts is an essential part of the writing process. That also means there is less pressure on your students to perfect their first drafts. They don’t need to worry about finding the right words in their first drafts because they’ll reread and revise anything they write (hopefully more than once). It’s okay for first drafts to be messy. They’re supposed to be. Just tell your students to get their ideas down on paper. They’ll be able to polish their words later.


3) Get trusted advice. Every successful author has a go-to person who reads their work before anyone else. It might be a relative, friend, another writer, or an editor. You can usually find that person’s name listed on the acknowledgments page at the beginning of a book. A trusted reader can offer valuable big-picture perspective, and also catch small mistakes that are hard to see when someone’s been looking at a piece of writing for a long time.


Finding the right reader can be a little tricky with college essays because the world of college admissions is always changing. At Wow, we have ongoing conversations with admissions officers across the country to make sure that we offer the best college essay advice that reflects what admissions readers are hoping to see. You can get more tips in our book.


Our Gift: A Free Book for You

To show you how much we appreciate the work you do, we’d like to give you a free electronic copy of our book: How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents. Find out how to get free books for every parent in your school, too.

How do you approach the college essay? We’d love to hear how you talk to your students when they panic, and what your biggest college essay challenges are.


Joe Kane is Senior Writing Coach for Wow Writing Workshop, which is still accepting essay coaching students who are applying to college and graduate school this fall. Wow’s team of professional writers and teachers understand the writing process inside and out. The Wow Method has been used by students to write application essays and resumes; by business owners to create blogs, websites and other communication materials; and by English teachers to improve student writing skills. If it involves words, we can help.