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Sarah Lyman Kravits knows what it takes to write a great college essay. Not only is she the co-author of the Keys to Success college textbook series, but she’s read applications and interviewed candidates for the University of Virginia’s Jefferson Scholars program for more than twenty years. When a good essay comes across her desk, she’s the first one to cheer.
Sarah started The Writers Circle’s Less Stress College Essays workshop this past Sunday by asking the students to get rid of their phones. “Give them to your parents. Or simply shut them off. It will help you focus and give you the quiet mental space to invite ideas in.”
The objective of the workshop was simply to get started on a working draft. “We only have three hours today, so it’s not going to be done. But you’re here now. It’s only May! Relax! You have time!”
Sarah pointed out the two main problems in college essays:
The initial focus was on idea generation, using exercises to narrow down topics for first drafts. Sarah noted the proliferation of college essays about community service by sharing the comment of an Admissions Officer friend: “We get the feeling that they’re writing these essays ‘because YOU want me to’ instead of because it’s a meaningful experience for them.”
She dispelled the idea that college admissions is a race. “This ‘race to the top’ metaphor creates a lot of anxiety. What’s compelling to admissions officers is a student with whom they want to have a relationship. Like when you meet a new friend: that person who’s trying too hard…. Does that make you want to hang out with them?”
She suggested students think about the process as working to discover a college that they want a relationship with. “In writing your application, if you’re trying too hard to be what THEY want, they’ll sense that. But when you connect with somebody in a non-stressful situation, by just being yourself, it opens the door to real relationships. Just remember that they would love you to be someone they want at their school. Your essay opens the door to that possibility. You can only be the best YOU. You can’t be the best someone else. So look at your real life and find what’s important. Don’t compare with anyone else.”
While the students’ eyes were closed, she guided them in a targeted meditation designed to encourage individual and unique idea generation. As she said to students, “The world tends to distract us with life’s treadmill – this is an opportunity to step down from it, hang out with yourself for a few minutes, and discover thoughts and ideas that are unique to you.”
She handed the students a set of index cards. On one, she asked them to write ideas that the meditation had brought up for them. On another card, she asked them to consider things they were curious about, cared about, and what they would change about themselves or the world, among other ideas.
Only then did Sarah address the Common App questions, telling students to adjust the essays to what resonated with them, rather than writing to the questions.
As a prelude to writing, the students read three versions of a sample essay opening aloud—one overwritten, one too “told,” and one that was “just right.” All the students quickly recognized which version was the most successful.
Before sending them off to write, Sarah shared, “My favorite metaphor for writing is the potter’s wheel. You slam the clay on it and it’s a big pile of junk. Then you start spinning and realize, ‘Oh, this big hunk here…I can take that off. That strange clump over there…I can change how it’s shaped.’ Don’t be afraid to put all that stuff out there even if it’s horrible, because you will be able to shape it and trim it later on.”
Finally the students chose a comfortable place to write. The room grew silent except for the clicking of keyboards and the buzz of thoughts. At the end of the workshop, they left with a few smiles on faces and several sighs of relief, ready to face their working drafts with a lot less stress, and a lot more confidence in themselves and their writing.