Avoid the yawn fest and construct a compelling essay.

I get it. Nothing bad’s ever happened to you, so you don’t know what to write about. You think real writers are tortured, tragic, withered human beings with an infinite amount of heart-wrenching material spewing from their fingers onto the keyboard. You, with your beige existence, up to this point, have been enjoying life blissfully ignorant of all the horrible things happening to others. Your life is boring, a yawn fest. You're not a writer, right? WRONG!

You ARE a writer!

Because even the best writers sit in front of a blank screen wondering what the heck they’re going to write about. You’re not alone, either. Millions of teens are in your position — having to write a college essay and having absolutely nothing compelling to say. Consider yourself lucky. You’ve made it through life without any catastrophic circumstances impacting you.

However, simple moments in life are just as compelling as a catastrophe. And if you can convey, in detail, a small instance in your life when something changed in you, you have yourself an awesome college essay. 

Here are some things to remember when writing a college essay:

  1. Make the opening line a punch to the face. Like this: “When I was in 9th grade, I watched my best friend die of brain cancer, and I stopped believing in God.” Tell me you wouldn’t want to read more of that essay! 
  2. Show don’t tell. Saying, high school was challenging (YAWN!) doesn’t have enough force behind it. I cannot see "challenging" because it’s an abstraction. Avoid abstractions at all costs in creative writing. Instead, show the reader "challenging." For example, you might say, “I was the only kid who wore white tennis shoes on my first day of high school. Walking down the hall I looked like I had headlights on my feet, and everyone looked at me and giggled. Obviously, I didn’t get the memo that white sneakers, that my mom bought on clearance, were not cool in 9th grade.” You can see the awkwardness of that teenager walking down a crowded hall with his glaring white tennis shoes. Poor thing!
  3. Keep it small. Choose a topic that is small enough to construct a succinct, descriptive account of what you are talking about in your essay. For example, one of my students focused on when she realized she was surrounded by misogyny and sexism. Her eyes were opened and her outlook on life was altered. Another student of mine focused on the plane ride in a small puddle jumper that took him to a third-world country, where he would help build houses for people, displaced from their homes. The plane ride is full of emotion and uncertainty. It’s brilliant!
  4. 500 words only, PLEASE! Look, admissions officers read thousands of essays. When they see a three pager, they die a little inside. Get your point across with the fewest words possible. How do you do that? You start big and get everything on paper. Then you revise, cut, revise, cut and revise. 
  5. Edit, revise, edit, revise. The power of an essay comes in many, many revisions. If you think you’re going to write one draft of an essay and hit submit, think again. Good writing is great editing — period. Write a little, put it down, come back, edit, revise, and repeat as many times as it takes.  
  6. Have someone else take a look at it. You may know what you’re trying to say, but other people may not. It’s ok to share your drafts and get meaningful feedback. You have people you can trust to read your essay; use them. 
  7. Take a chance! Go ahead, embellish, and push the story a little further than you normally would. What will it hurt? You just may catch the attention of the admissions officer and get into your dream school. 

With that, we would like to share a few essays and excerpts written by our students over the last few weeks. These students followed our advice and wrote some very moving pieces. They grab the reader in the first lines, which is key.

Full Essay by Justin Suter

When I was in 9th grade, I watched my best friend die of brain cancer, and I stopped believing in God. 

Dillon and I had been best friends for as long as I could remember and grew up playing ice hockey and lacrosse together. When I found out he had a brain tumor, I honestly didn't know what to think. I was confused about how someone so young could be so sick. I was scared for him, but I was also frightened at the idea of losing him. I remember thinking how unfair it was and began secretly blaming God while holding on to the hope that He would heal Dillon. 

I made it a point to go visit Dillon so he didn’t feel alone; I would go to his house for dinner and watch comedies, Dillon’s favorite. I remember watching 21 Jump Street and laughing as Dillon acted out all the funny scenes. He was confined to his couch because of the awful effects of the cancer treatments, and the swelling of his body was getting worse. He didn’t even look like himself anymore, and his looming death began to take up space in my head. 

The morning of April 25, 2014, my mom came to wake me up for what I thought was school, but instead told me the news. 

In Lutheran school I was taught that God was our savior, our protector. God was all-knowing and all-powerful and was supposed to be the one we could go to and ask for help to get through life. It never occurred to me that He would take life away. I was so confused because for the first time, my blind faith was being challenged. At Dillon’s “celebration of life,”  his pastor focused on painting God in a positive light. I was furious. 

Even today, I am not sure what I believe in. Part of me wants to believe that there is a greater power and that all things have a larger purpose. The other part of me will never let go that God took away my best friend. I am grateful my parents are understanding when it comes to my beliefs. They understand I’m not buying the religious teachings of my youth. I can tell they are hurt by this a little. 

Sometimes I run my fingers over the charm I wear on my necklace to remember my friend and remember how Dillon’s death forced me to question my beliefs. Life would be easier if I just forgave God and moved on. And perhaps the fact I am mad at God means I do believe. After all how could I be so furious with something that doesn't exist?

Excerpt From an Essay Written by Parker Hazen

“As the micro plane began speeding up and taking off above the tarmac, I looked back at the colorful aquatic designs of the airport and the colossal mega resort of Atlantis in the distance, imagining how much more fun those peoples' next 7 days will be than mine. I began to sweat as we flew over the island. It was even smaller than I had expected. We landed on the strip and walked up to the small hut of an “airport” and hopped in a truck that would carry us to what would be our home for the next week.”

Excerpt from an essay written by Sammy Maurer

“With all this talk about shattered glass ceilings, one might assume that I, being a seventeen-year-old woman can be anything I want: an astronaut, a model, a journalist, even a mom. However, the reality is I have been told to shrink myself. I have had to put up with discrimination and misogyny, and have been gracious while doing it.  I have agreed to these terms willingly without knowing it because my role was socially constructed from birth.”

Excerpt from an essay written by Oliver Mansell

Before the shards of glass hit the ground after my father threw a grenade into the middle of my life, I was splendidly ignorant and privileged: skiing in New Mexico, whale watching in Alaska, snorkeling in the Bahamas.

And then my father decided to leave. I was thirteen.

The ideal home is a structured, nurturing environment that enables young adults to mature. Unfortunately, not all homes are ideal. When my father walked out the door, we were not only left with an empty chair at the dinner table, but also financial burdens that included 4 years of back taxes my mother was left to pay. With the absence of a father figure, I had to design my own path to becoming the type of man that I would see as successful.

Full Essay by Michael Davis

I came home from school to find a perfectly manicured house. The laundry room stood spotless and every counter had been wiped down, leaving only a couple of out-of-place flower pots. On a weekend this would have been the regular routine; however, it was a Tuesday, and I was supposed to be the only one home. Surely robbers hadn’t broken in to make sure all of the crumbs had been scooped off of the counter. I ventured further through my home to find my dad sitting on the living room couch. He usually would not come home from work until seven, and it was only a quarter past four. He told me to take a seat, which I cautiously did; I began to ask him why he was home so soon but was quickly cut off. He looked up and calmly said, “I don’t have a job anymore.” Astonished, I stared at him for a couple minutes, not fully understanding exactly what this meant. My dad was the branch manager at TruGreen making low six figures, and now he was apparently making nothing. 

Weeks went by and for the most part nothing had changed. He wasn’t looking for a new job like I expected, but instead, he began developing his own lawn care company. His 9 to 5 job had defined him professionally for the past thirty years, and it dawned on me that a new business was the only option to keep our family from going bankrupt. The process was not easy; completing tedious paperwork and applying for the required licenses were now my dad’s responsibility. He was no longer just the branch manager; he served as every position from CEO to the clean-up crew, but before too long, GreenSmart LLC. was prepared to operate.

Although he had already ordered all of the chemicals and equipment to begin operations, one piece of this puzzle was still missing. He had no truck -- the most vital tool in the lawn care business. Just as I was posing the question, “What about the truck?” to my mom, the phone rang. It was my dad telling us to come outside. As we walked out of my front door a fluorescent green wrapped Chevrolet 2500 with the name Green Smart Lawncare pulled into the driveway. It felt like christmas morning watching the faces of my parents light up after months of worry and sadness.  

Soon after the small celebration, it was straight to work. The phone began to ring non-stop with potential customers. This was not a 9-5 job but rather an unstoppable machine that required a captain at all times. Inordinate amounts of time were spent writing commercial proposals, only to have a fraction of them sign with our company. Although the business was not always particularly rewarding, my father's determination showed me the importance of dedication and perseverance. He showed me that I should not let obstacles stand in my way, no matter how bleak the situation seemed.  This experience inspired me to be an entrepreneur, and my learning experiences at The University of Florida will allow me to fine tune my business acumen.       

Excerpt from an Essay Written by Sarah Eller

I have always felt protected in my hometown. I am privileged to have grown up in an upscale neighborhood with an intact family.  I never had a reason to feel unsafe--until recently. There have been many horrific stories of mass shootings, particularly against minorities.  In response, people have started movements such as Black Lives Matter, hoping to bring the violence to an end. Unfortunately, this seems to be creating even more dissension.

Kathleen JasperComment