About the Writing Process
I help students write extraordinary college admissions essays by putting to use my own experience as a writer, editor and writing teacher. I have studied, practiced and taught all the strategies I recommend. While all methods don’t work with all students, I can find ones that will.
1. Preparatory work
I start by sending my students a packet of sample essays. I ask them to read these essays carefully and write critiques of them on a form that I provide. I ask them to note similarities and differences among the essays in terms of voice, content, and structure, and to determine which ones “speak” to them, which ones don’t and why.
Prior to our first meeting, I also have students do a creative writing exercise about themselves. This not only helps me to get to know the students better but shows them that writing their college essays will be a creative process, not simply an academic one. I also ask them to read the Common App prompts and do 5-minute “free-writes” on each one, brainstorming all possible topics and thoughts that the prompts elicit.
At our first meeting, either in person or by Skype or FaceTime, we talk about all the preparatory work the student has done, and I ask questions – lots of questions. I watch for flickers of light. What does the student like to talk about? When does he or she move into territory or details that are, for me, unfamiliar, surprising, exciting? Together, we circle in on a topic or two to explore. And then I have the student write as much as he or she can about it.
I believe that great writing is the distillation of lots of not-so-great writing. To this end I invite my students to write in detail – and way over the word limit -- about the topic or topics we have decided on. Allowing them to write freely helps dissipate their anxiety about writing the essay. Soon, they are no longer staring at a blinking cursor and a blank screen. There are words on the page. We agree on a deadline for them to submit what they’ve written.
4. Idea development
Within 48 hours of receiving their work, I send back their writing with my comments embedded within it. I note what stands out for me and what perplexes me, but mostly I ask for more detail. “What did it look like?” I ask. “How did you feel about it?” When students get specific, they make discoveries and forge connections, and these realizations lie at the heart of the type of vivid, thoughtful essays admissions committees love to read.
5. Editing, revising, and proofreading
Once all the material is there, it is time to make decisions about what “works” and what doesn’t. Together, we find the story and whittle away all the details that don’t support or enhance it. This often takes several rounds of editing and/or meeting in person, talking on the phone, or videoconferencing. Eventually we get down to 650 words and, once we agree it is done, I do a final proofread.
6. Last but not least...supplements!
Supplemental essays show admissions officers how much an applicant wants to go to a particular school. For that reason they should be composed using the same careful process described above. Fortunately, once students have worked with me on their Common App essay, they are familiar with the steps and can execute them relatively quickly. What’s more, their ideas for the supplements often come out of our initial brainstorming sessions.
It is hard work. But believe it or not, most of my students end up enjoying the process they had dreaded for so long. Not only will they have learned about themselves and written an essay they are proud of, but they will have learned how to take the seed of an idea and develop it into a finished product, an essential skill for writing in college and beyond.
“Shea has the mixture of sensitivity, intelligence, experience and social skills that helped our son in a way that we could not. Shea not only helped our son narrow down his essay topic but was able to give him the structure and guidance to complete a beautifully written essay. Shea knows how to write, and her natural teaching style just worked for our son. We feel so fortunate to have had her through this stressful process.”
– parent of a Brown Undergraduate
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”
– JOAN DIDION