Normally, I’d spend a few minutes trying to come up with a pithy line or a catchy hook to convince you to read the rest of this blog post, but unfortunately, the circuits in my brain in charge of expository writing are a bit fried.
But please, I promise there’s a guide to essay writing buried somewhere here in all these words.
Over the last three weeks, I've been spending most of my free time on medical school applications, writing essays, or at the very least agonizing about writing essays. In what was most likely just another subconscious procrastination scheme, I collected some data from my work and tabulated them here.
Secondary applications submitted: 7
Secondary applications pending: 7
Essays completed: 16
Essays pending: 17 and counting
Total word count: 4,260
Total character count: 25,664
Number of times the space bar was used in final drafts: 4,234
The sum of all of these numbers: 34,205
You know what else is 34000+? The number of cities that Airbnb services! Hooray for numbers that add no value to our lives.
***Airbnb is not paying me to say this, I swear. I just googled 34,000+ and this is what came up.
The point being: it's exhausting. The process, at least the first two parts, is reminiscent of the college application process which, if I remember correctly, starts in the summer, kicks into high gear in the fall and then enters into a frenzy of last minute essays and application portal crashes in the last months of the year.
For those of you already familiar with the application process for medical school, skip ahead past the italics to the actual guide! For those of you unfamiliar, I've included a quick primer here for context:
A Rough Timeline for Medical School Applications
Infanthood - high-school-hood: live life and consider maybe becoming a doctor (if you really want a leg up on the competition, get a head start in the womb!).
Freshman year - sophomore year: start checking off required/"recommended" courses (i.e. biology, organic chemistry, physics), sign up for extracurricular activities and explore career paths ("finding yourself" is optional).
Junior year: take the MCAT, meet with the pre-health committee to prepare a committee letter (a compilation of all letters of recommendations), request letters from professors, advisors etc.
June between junior and senior year: complete the AMCAS primary application. The primary application is like the Common App and includes coursework info, extracurricular activities, and a personal statement. The same application is sent to whichever schools you designate (although there are a few that don't participate).
July-August between junior and senior year: complete secondary applications for each school that offers one. Secondary applications are unique to each school and generally include requests for more essays as well as any additional information they might need.
Senior fall and winter: spend large sums of money to fly around the country and interview at schools.
Senior spring: get accepted! (??!?!)
The kicker? Primary and secondary applications are generally accepted on a rolling basis which means they start reading the applications as soon as they come in and they start offering interviews and acceptances as soon as they find qualified individuals. That means the longer you wait, the smaller the statistical probability of your acceptance gets.
And now, for the actual guide I promised. I’ve compiled some advice, tips, and essay writing methods here that I’ve gathered over the years and that I wish I’d had four years ago when applying to college. I don’t claim to be an expert at essay writing by any means, but I mean, even the dullest tool in the shed gets wet when it falls into the well, right?
(That’s definitely a real saying and not a poorly constructed mixed metaphor that I just made up.)
The points are divided into the three phases of essay writing – before, during, and after – and despite the highly specific title in this post's tagline, they can be applied to essay writing or applications of any sort. Everyone works in different ways though, so if some of the things I do sound useless and unhelpful, then ignore them!
Ok, let’s get started with this Guide to Essay Writing for the Express Purpose of Obtaining Admittance to an Institute of Higher Learning:
Essay writing for the express purpose of obtaining admittance to an institute of higher learning can be started before the essay prompts even become available. Being self-aware and reflective are two traits that will serve you well in life for many reasons, but having the foresight to exercise these traits early in life will make your essay-writing life a whole lot easier.
1. Start a CliffsNotes version of your life.
Literally. Buy a notebook or create a new word document and start recording important thoughts, actions, and experiences from your life for easy reference in the future. You wouldn’t have to keep a daily journal of your life (although that would not be a bad thing!). Just jot down things that seem significant at the time. Even if you only update the CliffsNotes once a month or twice a year, anything will help when you sit down to actually start writing.
The hardest part about essay writing for me is actually coming up with a worthwhile idea. This can be difficult if the prompt asks you to recall a time in your life when something happened but you can’t quite recall all of the things in your life that you once thought were important. It’s a relatively low cost and potentially high reward exercise that can help facilitate essay ideation. At the very least, it will provide you with something amusing to read thirty years down the line.
“But what sort of things qualify as ‘important’ or ‘significant’?” Good question.
2. Know the questions they will inevitably be asking.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that at some point in the application process, you will be confronted by a few ever present buzzwords, like LEADERSHIP!, DIVERSITY!!, TEAMWORK!!!, and ADVERSITY!!!! So don’t be surprised when they appear, usually in some variation of the “Tell me about a time when ___” prompt.
Jot down examples that address these application juggernauts in the CliffsNotes version of your life. If you have obvious examples of leadership or teamwork then go ahead and list those roles, including also dates and time spent on each, which will come in handy years later when you are scrounging through weeks of your google calendar trying to figure these things out after the fact (I speak from experience). But also note down experiences that might be less title driven. Not everyone has been president of the student body or chair of a committee, so take note of moments when you might have exhibited these traits in a more understated way. Be aware of how you act in certain situations and reflect on whether or not you have been able to demonstrate strength in these common traits.
Other buzzwords might also appear depending on specifically what you are applying for. For example, a med school application is definitely going to be asking you why you want to go to med school and whether or not you’ve participated in volunteering and shadowing experiences. Keep track of these as well.
Finally, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that you should pick your interests and activities solely in order to answer an essay prompt, I will say that it is naïve to think that you can get away with not fulfilling any of these expectations. Consider your own motivations and reasons for wanting to apply and consider what they in turn expect from applicants. Ideally, these would align, but if not, just be aware these gaps and how you might want to fill them in while planning your activities and personal development.
So the applications have opened and it is now essay writing open season. This section of the guide covers the process from the moment the prompts are released to the sweet, sweet moment you click submit and the burdens of writing a good essay dissipate, only to be replaced by the gnawing anxiety of wondering whether or not they thought it was good enough.
1. Read the prompts immediately.
Whether or not you are racing a hard deadline or a self-imposed rolling application deadline, you can benefit from reading the prompts as soon as possible. Sure, you might not actually get around to writing for another three months, but it’s important to be aware of what sort of answers you are looking for. It’s like priming your brain for a lightbulb moment. Inspiration can lurk in the most mundane and unexpected places but its value can only be understood by those who are prepared to recognize it.
2. Optimize your work environment.
Everyone has a slightly different work style which means changes in environmental parameters can lead to improved or decreased work productivity. Some people thrive on the ambient sounds of their local coffee shop while others gag at the smell of coffee. Pretty sure you aren’t going to be producing your finest work while reflexively gagging every few minutes.
Parameters to consider: location, snacks, sounds, personal comfort, etc. Experiment with mixing and matching different parameters until you find a set-up that feels most comfortable for you.
For brainstorming, I’m partial to lying on the carpet in my living room floor with a bottle of water and my Spotify playlist drifting through a pair of earbuds. I’ve also found that listening to instrumental dramatic film scores can be extremely motivating. For work, silence is crucial and I usually sit at a desk in a library with a stick of gum to keep me awake but no food or drink to distract me.
3. Talk to people.
Talk to them about some of the essay prompts and pick their brains. Sometimes hearing other people’s stories can help trigger associations of your own. Use a friend or a family member as a sounding board for your ideas. In the ensuing dialogue you can gain feedback about the impact and perception of whatever ideas are floating around in your brain.
4. Still feeling stuck? Try these random brainstorming strategies:
a. Stream of consciousness – Set a timer (I usually go for two or five minutes depending on how ambitious I’m feeling), reread the essay prompt, then proceed to spend the allotted time typing out every single thought that pops into your mind. It’s important that you do not filter these thoughts. Forget about punctuation or sentence structure or grammar or capitalization. My streams often start with full sentences or thoughts, eventually devolving into fragments of phrases and ideas, peppered with the occasional complaint and unrelated tangent. If for some reason your brain thinks the word “mayonnaise” while you are typing, you are obliged to type the word “mayonnaise” exactly as it appeared in your stream of consciousness. #nofilter
The purpose of this exercise is to allow your mind to freely associate different ideas, thoughts, and experiences. Often when we are brainstorming, we filter ideas out that we think are bad, but this precludes all of the constructive free associations that might have come from that bad idea. The exercise also forces your thoughts to be continuously moving. Another brainstorming pitfall is stalling and fixating on one idea. However, because the only premise of this activity is that you literally don’t stop typing for even one second, your brain is forced to constantly be coming up with new thoughts. Admittedly most of what you write will be garbage, but once you sift through the gibberish, it can be useful for uncovering ideas and topics that you might not have considered before.
b. Bullet points – This is essentially a more concise version of the stream of consciousness in that you write down every single idea you have, both the good and the bad, as quickly as you can in bullet form. Then, you go back and write one or two sentences under each bullet, elaborating on how that idea might be constructed into an essay. If after you’ve written all the ideas down, some of them still seem like dead ends, cross them out and keep on paring the list down until you have just one or two ideas that you might seriously consider. Use this strategy in lieu of the stream of consciousness only if you are confident in your ability to leave your thoughts unfiltered.
c. Staring at the ceiling – I do some of my best thinking while lying on the carpet and staring at the ceiling. Not really sure if this one is translatable to the general public but if you are at an absolute loss, give it a try! I think it helps because it allows my body to completely relax while my mind continues to grapple with the essay prompts.
d. Writing by hand – The benefit of writing by hand is two fold. For one, the tactile experience of physically writing out your thoughts can potentially be enough of a change to generate some new thoughts. Furthermore, you can doodle aimlessly in the corner and then angrily scribble out the bad ideas, which is therapeutic and calming. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, writing by hand means you aren’t on your laptop which means that pesky thing we call the internet cannot lure you to the wayside with its siren song of distractions galore.
5. Just write.
Sometimes the hardest part about writing is simply getting started. Once again, our internal filter can be our own worst enemy. For me, writing the first sentence is difficult because I spend too much time trying to make it perfect and that inhibits me from writing anything at all.
Let’s just get this out of the way now: your first draft isn’t going to be perfect. You’re going to reread it later and realize that you weren’t as eloquent as you had first imagined. Take comfort in the fact that sometimes it isn't possible for you to determine the absolute best course of action from a purely conceptual standpoint. In this case, you shouldn't dwell on unknowable things.
I’ve learned in other aspects of life, too, that instead of agonizing over what the perfect choice is, it is more efficient and productive to run with the best idea you have with the given information, test that idea out, evaluate its shortcomings, make adjustments, and repeat.
Once you have your idea, just start writing. It’s ok if you end up writing the most generic opening line in the history of opening lines. It’s just a draft. You can fix it. You can even scrap the entire thing if it really is that terrible. But at the very least, you’ve narrowed down your options and you know what doesn’t work, which will ultimately help you craft a better, more polished essay.
6. But don’t forget to give yourself a break.
This one is fairly self-explanatory but worth repeating. At first, after receiving the secondary applications and starting the clock on the rolling admissions process, I felt guilty every time I watched a movie or read a book. Every moment I spent having fun was another hundredth of a percentage point being chipped away from my acceptance probability.
In retrospect, past-me-from-two-weeks-ago really needed to calm down.
You can’t force quality writing. It isn’t one of those things where if you scrunch your forehead wrinkles extra hard and chant “I think I can I think I can I think I can”, something will magically happen. Yes, you have to put the time and the effort in and you have to work hard, but you should also be comfortable with the fact that sometimes, the time just isn't right. Walk away and come back later. There is such a thing as burning yourself out. That’s why, if you really want to write a great essay, you can’t start at the absolute last minute. You have to leave time for the natural ebb and flow of your writing to happen.
So, don’t forget to give yourself a break. Relax a little. Like an oil change, it's just another necessary part of the process.
7. While having a third-party read over and edit your work is great, try a few of these self-editing strategies too:
a. Oldie but goodie: Leave it for a day and read it again with fresh eyeballs.
You know how when you reread your favorite book, you end up kind of just skimming it because you already know what’s going to happen? The words aren’t really there to help you discover the story anymore but rather to remind you of the story you remember. This happened to me a lot of with the first three Harry Potter books. The plot and characters became so familiar that my eyes would involuntarily skip entire words and phrases as my mind filled in the blanks.
I think the same thing happens when you reread your own essay over and over again right after you’ve written it. You literally just pulled those sentences out of your brain twenty minutes ago so when you go in for the reread, you might be inadvertently skimming your work and glossing over the things that need fixing.
However, if you come back to the essay the next day or perhaps a few days later, you can attack it with fresh eyeballs and a somewhat more neutral perspective.
b. Also oldie but also goodie: Read it out loud.
Reading it out loud can help you recognize awkward phrasings, grammatical errors, or illogical breaks. This is essentially a variation of the Fresh Eyeballs Theorem which posits that you are more likely to catch errors in your own work when you change the lens through which you are viewing things. In the last case, waiting a day or two was a temporal change. Here, the change from visual input to auditory input can be enough to refocus your attention and help you catch those pesky mistakes.
c. Print out a physical copy and whip out your trusty red pen.
Another example of the Fresh Eyeballs Theorem. This time, you are swapping out the glare of a computer screen for printed ink on smooth white paper. The red pen is just an added bonus.
d. Change the font in your word processor.
This option is for the environmentally friendly essay writer who wants to save the planet one piece of paper at a time, or who maybe just doesn’t have access to a printer. Feel free to get funky with this one and try reading your essay in Broadway, Chiller, or even the oft reviled Comic Sans. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, might I suggest Wingdings 2?
In all seriousness though, changing the font will alter how you view the text and since spacing and word placement will change too, it’s especially helpful for catching the purely formatting related issues.
8. Find a way to motivate yourself by setting goals with a friend or with yourself.
If self-imposed deadlines alone are not getting the job done, try teaming up with a friend to hold each other accountable. Sometimes the fear of breaking a promise to a good friend is enough to kick your butt into action. But if it’s not, come up with silly “penalties” like putting two dollars into a donut fund jar for every day you miss your deadline. Or award yourself for a job well done, such as eating a donut for every essay you finish by a designated day.
Don’t like donuts? Well tough luck. I have nothing to say to you.
Congratulations! You’re free! But now what?
1. Relax. It’s out of your hands.
I’m stating the obvious here, but I think a lot of people need to be reminded of this from time to time (myself included). Think about literally anything except essay writing because there is absolutely nothing you can do to change anything! You put your all into those applications and essays and now it’s time to enjoy your hard-earned free time.
For the worriers out there, I suggest distracting yourself with friends, family, and whatever it is that you do for fun. I personally have a long list of films and books I’m hoping to get to after this is all over.
Thank you for reading this Guide to Essay Writing for the Express Purpose of Obtaining Admission to an Institute of Higher Learning :) I’m only halfway through my applications though so I’d be curious to hear what you think about the essay writing process and how all of you go about knocking these out of the park!