Sage Advice for the College Essay
College application season is here and it’s time for high school seniors to get reflective and write their college essays. If you are a student or parent making your first foray into the thicket of information surrounding the college essay, allow me to offer some guidance! Though daunting, these essays ultimately present a beautiful opportunity for students to get specific and enunciate their authentic passions and dreams.
In The Art of the College Essay, Gabrielle Glancy sums it up nicely when she states that “Writing from your heart, in your own voice, about what you’re moved to write about is the way to go.” I refer back to this quote frequently when I am working with college essay students. It touches on the most crucial part of the college essay—the authentic topic. The word authentic comes from the Greek authentikos, which means “principal” or “genuine,” two terms that invoke notions of lineage and fatherhood. Long story short, like Athena from the head of Zeus, the topic of a student’s essay should arise from his or her own self. This does not mean there isn’t room for guidance and midwifery; writing always has been and always will be a collaborative act. But the parentage of a student’s essay should be indisputable. College essays are only successful when they are authentically a student’s own.
The other factor Glancy alludes to is passion. Passion comes from the Latin pati, which actually means “to suffer.” Our utilization of the word has evolved over time to bear a broader meaning, but the root is still visceral. A student should feel strongly about the topic he or she writes of. If you are helping a student with an essay, you should see a spark in her eye when you discuss the topic of the essay. This doesn’t mean it won’t be work to write the essay. Writing is mining the glitter and gold from the earth of our psyches—and labor it is. But if your essay is feeling flat, with no sparkle, you must, YOU MUST, seek another vein of ore to chip away at. The right topic is there. Keep digging.
As for the format of these essays, most college essay gurus recommend the “narrative essay,” which comprises a personal story and then reflection. This is a great, basic outline to follow. The key is to find a gem to focus in upon. When I first started working with college essay students, former Sage writing tutor (and now bestselling author!) Lindsey Lee Johnson explained to me that specificity is of the utmost importance when it comes to college essays. Especially in the privileged area of Marin, many students fear they have no stories to tell, no unique experiences worthy of note. Impossible! Get specific. Tell me about your experience: the time of day, the setting and scene, the characters. Tell me about your senses, your memories, your tension and your fear. Tell me of your joy and visions, of the warmth in your cheeks and the taste of summer. Tell me in metaphor; tell me in song. The word “specificity” derives from the Latin specere, which means “to look.” Get specific—look again. Look again at the color, form, the species of your experience. Incidentally, respect derives from the same Latin root and means literally “to look again.” Any act of self-reflection is, therefore, an act of self-respect.
The college essay—what a marvelous task to embark upon. Best of luck!
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