Straight-A students from some of the best high schools in the country become unhinged at the thought of crafting a 650-word essay in response to “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?” (2017-2018 Common Application, Question #3). It’s not surprising — very few students are comfortable writing essays, especially when a lot of responses are best made with a story: narrative essays are rarely written within the high school curriculum.
If you find yourself completely flummoxed by the entire essay writing process, you might turn to the aptly named, "Escape Essay Hell!," by Janine Robinson. "Escape Essay Hell!" incorporates a 10-step process that helps you extract defining qualities that serve as the basis for your story, explains well the difference between ‘show’ and ‘tell’ and then supplies the structure and tools to interweave showing and telling into a riveting essay that will bear testimony to your talents and, most importantly, to the real you.
If you have qualms about writing a narrative essay, fear not. "Escape Essay Hell!" supplies a generous dose of examples and intersperses its pages with hot tips on how best to show emotions, include dialogue, and even expose your vulnerabilities: “… Self-doubt and authenticity takes a lot of courage. For college essays, that’s good stuff.” (p.41)
Whether or not "Escape Essay Hell!" proves a divine deliverance, the most important piece of essay writing advice is to start early. We have students start the process during the summer between their junior and senior years. In the summertime, they’re relieved of the burdens of AP or IB courses, or extracurricular activities. They can think, contemplate, and experiment. The earlier their start, the better their essays are likely to become. Well-written essays take time; they also need, sometimes, to be put aside for periods of time and then re-visited.
Just get started no matter what. Turn off self-criticism. Don’t manufacture an expansive outline, just begin writing. It doesn’t matter if you ramble, free associate, or rant, just get it down. You can always edit and salvage the best.
Harry Bauld, a former admissions officer for Columbia University and the author of the classic book on the admissions essay, "On Writing the College Application Essay, Secrets of a former Ivy League Admissions Officer," calls writing the college essays a "rite of passage.” It’s the first time the student is asked to define herself and to ‘sell’ her image to a critical audience, the college admissions office. Additionally, these essays require, simultaneously, self-analysis with clear exposition, a task not easily accomplished by even the most seasoned adult writers. This kind of writing, by its very nature, can take a long time; this is another reason to get started early.
As with any type of writing, you should consider your audience. In many cases, your reader is the junior admissions officer. In all cases, this work is considered drudgery. Your reader gazes at dozens of these essays each day, Sundays included. If you make yours interesting, entertaining, and different, then you have a chance of engaging him or her. Once engaged, you’ve just gained a potential advocate for your application; that’s the essence of the exercise.
Keep in mind: it’s generally not the topic, but the execution of the essay that matters. Certainly there are topics best avoided: death of a pet or the big tour of Outer Mongolia are two. But for the most part, keep in mind the following:
1. Engage and entertain your audience — make him or her want more.
2. Keep it loose and relaxed, and always entertaining.
Michelle Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer, advocates ‘slice of life essays:' “The most effective essays take a small, seemingly insignificant incident and elaborate upon it… The best essays are ones that help admissions officers understand your character better and/or shed light on any factors in your background that have influenced what kind of person you are.” (Hernandez, A is for Admission, p. 123)
If the essay brings you off the page in three dimensions, it’s done its job. The rest is up to you.
Ralph Becker, is founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC (www.ivycollegeprep.net) and a resident of Long Beach. He has been counseling students for 11 years. He has a certificate in college counseling from the UCLA Extension, and has published "SAT* Vocab 800." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom . . .
— Bertrand Russell
On a cold, sunny day in early March, my husband, Steve, and I layered up and took ourselves out to our backyard: Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. For a few days we had been spiraling downward through a series of miscommunications and tensions — the culmination of my rigorous dedication to fear, or what Bertrand Russell aptly coined “the tyranny of the habit of fear.” A fresh storm had dropped 10 inches of snow with little moisture giving it an airy, crystallized texture that sprayed out in an arc with each footstep and made a shushing sound, as if it were speaking directly to me. Shush. Shush. Shush.
Moving into the elegant world of white-draped red rock is usually enough to strip our minds of the qualms that harass us, but on this particular day, Steve and I both stomped into the desert bearing a commitment to hang onto the somber roles we had adopted. Solemnity is difficult, however, when one is tumbling down hills of snow-covered, deep sand and slipping off steep angles of slickrock on one’s backside. Still, it took a good half-mile before we were convinced of our absurdity.
Such is the nature of the desert. If you persist in your gravity, the desert will take full advantage — it will have you falling over yourself as you trudge along carrying your blame and angst and fear; it will mock you until you literally and figuratively lighten up and conform to the place. The place will never conform to you. We knew that; that’s why we went. That’s why we always go to the desert when we’re stuck in a cycle of self-induced wretchedness.
“Fear,” Russell writes, “makes man unwise in the three great departments of human conduct: his dealings with nature, his dealings with other men, and his dealings with himself.”
I can attest to the truth of Russell’s words. I’ve spent many lifetime hours processing fear, and I’ve brought fear’s oppression into my marriage. Because fear is the natural state of my mind, I often don’t realize I’m spewing it into the atmosphere with my words and actions. The incident that drove us into the desert on that particular day was, in my mind, a simple expression of concern, a few “what will happen ifs”; in Steve’s mind, a paranoid rant. Upon reflection, I have to agree with his version.
A few months prior, Steve and I had decided upon a change in our lives: certainty in the form of a bi-weekly paycheck was traded for joy in the form writing time. It wasn’t a rash decision; it was five years in the making. Yet, from the moment the last check was cashed, my fear began roiling, slowly at first, but soon popping and splashing out of its shallow container. My voiced concerns regarding homelessness and insolvency went considerably beyond probable, falling to the far side of remotely possible. In my world, that’s enough for worry, discussion, obsession, more discussion, and several nights of insomnia.
We had parked the truck at the “head of the rocks,” an understated description of a spot that allows a 360-degree view of red and white slickrock cut with deep gulches and painted with the sweeping wear of wind and water. The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is 1.9 million acres of land, much of it devoid of human intrusion on any given day. Before we moved to the small town of Escalante on the Monument’s border, we came here from our city home five hours away — alone or together — whenever life threatened to shut us down.
From the head of the rocks, we followed the old cream cellar road, a wagon trail of switchbacks carved into stone in the early 1900s. We could see our destination about two miles out — a smooth, jutting wall with a level run of sand at its base that would allow us to sit with our faces to the sun and our backs against the wall — a fitting spot.
Steve walked behind me in silence, but I knew his thoughts. My fear perplexes and disparages him. His acts of heroism should dispel my anxiety, but it persists beyond the reach of his love. Yet, his love, too, persists.
Knowing I’ll pick up and read anything placed in my path, Steve had left on the butcher block where I eat breakfast Russell’s timeless collection of essays, “New Hopes for a Changing World,” published in 1951, five years before I was born. I skimmed the table of contents until I reached three essays entitled, “Fear,” “Fortitude,” and “Life Without Fear,” in which Russell writes about the pervasive and destructive nature of fear. One of the significant fears Russell writes about — a fear close to his own heart — is the fear of being unlovable, which, he writes, is self-fulfilling unless one gets out from under fear’s dominion. I’ve been testing Russell’s theory for the past eight years.
I’ve heard it said that all fear stems from the knowledge of our own mortality, and indeed, many of our social systems thrive by exploiting our fear of death and our desire to thwart it. But fear of death has never been my problem. To me, life, not death, holds the promise of misery. When life is lived as a problem to be solved, death offers the ultimate resolution, the release of all fears, the moment of pure peace.
By the time we had dropped from the head of the rocks halfway down to the scooped-out basin below, I could feel Steve letting go. His stride had become rhythmic, his foot placement sure. Without surprise, I noticed the same of myself. Steve’s 6’4” lanky frame flows effortlessly through the desert. He blends with his environment like a native species — skin the color of sandstone, eyes the color of juniper berries. If I turned to look at him, I would see a serene expression on his face, his hands held in front of his chest, the fingertips gently touching—his walking contemplation pose.
When we reached our destination, Steve pulled a space blanket out of his pack and spread it for us to sit on. The warm rock allowed us to discard several layers of clothing before resting our backs on the wall and tipping our faces upward. Steve placed a hand on my leg. In his autobiography, Russell wrote, “In general, I find that things that have happened to me out-of-doors have made a deeper impression than things that have happened indoors.” A curious statement upon first read, but my desert rambles have confirmed that nothing illuminates irrational fear more brilliantly than sun bouncing off slickrock.
“My fear is a bit much,” I said.
“Yes,” Steve said.
“The tyranny of the habit of fear,” I said, quoting Russell.
Sometimes in the mornings I wake up feeling as if my world is about to fly apart, and it takes a few minutes to pull myself back into my bed, my bedroom, my house — the one where my kind husband moves around the kitchen making coffee, the one where a sweet, asthmatic cat has taken up the still-warm, vacated space on the bed next to me.
I once had a therapist tell me that I likely learned my fear at a pre-verbal stage of life, which means, as I understand it, it got hard-wired in my brain. She called it Armageddon Syndrome. It is the deep nature of my fear that makes it an all-or-nothing proposition for me, something that needs to be treated like an addiction. Dabbling in it, however briefly, can bring on a full-scale blackout. The only option is letting go entirely — one moment at a time.
I’ve had throughout my life what I refer to as moments of bravado — a sudden urge to push myself beyond my fear in some big way. Those are the moments responsible for the significant changes in my life. They took me from my hometown of Tooele, Utah, to a Wall Street job in New York City, from finance to writing, and from New York City back to the West where I belong. Ultimately, my moments of bravado took me to the deserts of the Escalante, a place so stunning in its grandeur it defies fear. If ever there were a place on earth that allows one to enter and dwell at peace, this would be it.
From the outside looking in, my moments of bravado may appear as a connected life — a life lived with courage and intent. Yet each moment was taken in sheer terror. In “The Courage to Create,” Rollo May writes that Kierkegard, Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre all defined courage not as the absence of despair but as the ability to act in spite of it. If I go by that definition, I can technically call myself courageous.
Treating my fear as an addiction that doesn’t allow wavering often means placing myself in what others see as risky situations: How wise is it, for instance, for a woman whose deepest fear is financial destitution to quit her job (the one with a good salary and health insurance!) during the worst economy on recent record?
The answer lies in Russell’s words: “Until you have admitted your own fears to yourself, and have guarded yourself by a difficult effort of will against their myth-making power, you cannot hope to think truly about many matters of great importance . . .”
Fear is noisy, and it takes up a lot of space. Very little else — including matters of great importance — can break through. But at times, I can sit long enough to quiet the din of fear. When I do, in the part of my gut that is often churning with anxiety, I know that those“risky” decisions are the only things that do keep my world from flying apart.
When I wake up in the swirl of Armageddon, I have two choices: the first is to lie in bed convincing myself that the media headlines loom near — I will soon lose my house, my husband, and what little money I have. I can probably keep the cat, but he and I will be sharing a food bowl. The other choice is the courageous choice: get out of bed, open the blinds, and look to the east where the Escalante River gorge cuts through the sunlit ridge.
Jana Richman is the author of a memoir, “Riding in the Shadows of Saints,” and two novels, including the forthcoming “The Ordinary Truth.” More of her work can be found on her Web site.
My fear began roiling, slowly at first, but soon popping and splashing out of its shallow container.