Did you just write a first draft of your college admissions essay? Does it totally suck? In this blog, we’ll go over how to take a crap-tastic college essay and turn it into something much better.
The first thing we’re going to say is do not freak out! A lot of people write crappy essays the first time around. It’s totally normal. Some of Brooke’s best students, who had the best essays she had ever seen, started out with awful first drafts. Rest assured you are not alone!
For this blog and video, Brooke has written a fake, mock college essay draft pretending to be a 17-year-old. The first draft is intentionally awful. After reading through the essay, we’ll give three tips on how to improve an embarrassingly atrocious first draft.
My palms are sweating and I’m nervous. I stand in the wings of the stage as the orchestra starts its playing. The music echoes through backstage as I stand hushed, nervous. My clothes are not pretty and I’m dressed in brown. I’m the Second Woman and I wish I were someone else. Soon I’ll sing my one line and then assume my position in the mass of the chorus, pouring the part of me that is unhappy to be here into the unhappiness of my character. At least I’m in character. My first year in theater wasn’t that fun. My first year at a new school wasn’t that fun. Starting over wasn’t much fun in general.Mock college essay, Brooke’s first draft
Get Ride of Vagueness
This essay is way too short and cliché. Additionally, it suffers from something many student essays suffer from: it’s super vague. The first thing you want to do with a terrible essay draft is get rid of how vague it is. Specifics are gold when you’re writing your essays. With specifics, your essay is more readable and exciting. If your essay is more specific, this will also help you with following steps after this one.
One example of vagueness is the first sentence in the second paragraph. “In high school I moved to a new high school in a different state.” First of all, we don’t even know where this person moved from. This also gives no context to the kind of person this is. Brooke adds context and specificity in the new sentence, “After having moved to Overland Park, Kansas, I initially imagined an Oz-worthy path whereby I could reinvent myself. But the reality was far more sidelining at first.”
As we continue through the paragraph, we still suffer from vagueness. The essay says the move was hard, but gives no detail. This makes the paragraph boring. Throughout this entire essay we can change many sentences to make them more specific. Instead of saying “I had trouble making friends at first,” you could describe a specific scenario where you felt this way. Recounting an exact moment and all the details you remember would add something more to the essay.
Have a Theme Throughout
A theme is something that makes your story deeper. When writing your college essays, you want to find a theme throughout the essay. What is this essay actually about? We know the example essay is about moving and being in theater. But is that what it’s really about? One of the most interesting details in the first draft is talking about playing the Second Woman in theater. Normally, we see theater stories where someone is playing the lead roles, not stories where someone who’s used to playing the lead roles writing an entire essay about the worst role they ever played. And even though the role wasn’t big, it started them on a path that was growth-oriented, and they realized theater wasn’t about being the star, but about the meaning it gave to their life. Theater helped them control their emotions, understand how people respond and react, and opened up a whole new world for them.
That’s the theme of this essay we want to talk about. The writer of the essay was lost and felt like the Second Woman in their own life. Similarly to how the character in the play was unforgettable, the writer feels unforgettable in their life since they moved. Part of this tension is reality versus fiction, and part of it is between being a nobody and a somebody. Once you have a theme, you can start to dig into it ideologically and ask yourself if every line in the essay goes back to your theme. If it doesn’t align with your theme, it has to go. This will lead to a more interesting story.
Layer Multiple Stories
A lot of times, your initial essay suck because it’s just too boring, and there’s not enough going on. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing in the essay that’s interesting about you. It just means, even though you’ve written this entire essay about you, you’re not saying enough about you. The essay isn’t deep enough to really share who you are. By layering stories on top of each other, you can create a more complex picture. If you can find some kind of metaphor or resonance between stories, that can sometimes help you build a more interesting portrait.
In our example essay, the stories that are layered are playing the “Second Woman” in Fiddler on the Roof, the experience of moving, and also the story of Fiddler on the Roof itself. Now, we can look at themes that resonate with all three of these different stories. By layering, you can create interesting connections between stories, which adds depth. That becomes a more interesting story than one plain, simple story.
With all of these tips, Brooke has crafted a second draft that you can find below.
I played the “Second Woman” in Fiddler on the Roof. You’ve probably never heard of her, but when I was fifteen years old, clearly not a hunched over sixty year old like my character was, I portrayed her, and perhaps, my own circumstances echoed her plight: nearly nameless, a member of the chorus, drab and unbecoming, only one cluster of lines, replaceable, forgettable. After having moved to Overland Park, Kansas, I initially imagined an Oz-worthy path whereby I could reinvent myself. But the reality was far more sidelining at first.
And though I didn’t play a main part in the play, like the characters in Fiddler on the Roof battling a loss of tradition, I too, faced my own transition, my own coming to terms with finding my own voice and sense of balance, like a fiddler precariously performing on the roof.
Tradition, for me, was life in Naperville, IL, a suburban oasis replete with riverwalk dwelling ducks fattened by toddler-provided white bread, award winning public schools, and kids who rode bikes without helmets and drank from green garden hoses. I was first chair flute in my band, star of the middle school musicals, and a competitive cheerleader. Becoming a chorus member after feeling like the star discouraged me at first as I struggled to find my place, but also helped me confront my ever deep emotions, which I consider one of my greatest tools but also a perpetual challenge.
As a young kid I was often called a “cry baby,” and though in high school I wasn’t breaking into tears on a regular basis, I was feeling the weight of change and looking for a way to push beyond my feelings and engage. One way I did so was tactical: at my old school, our music programs were highly esteemed, but at my new school, the theater department was more respected. Even though my first theater production felt isolating and disappointing, I believed that if I worked to invest in it, I might find a niche.
I enrolled in the introductory acting class required to become a member of the “repertory theater.” Even without a lead role, I began to understand the community’s appeal. We were taught Stanislavsky, method acting, but it wasn’t simply acting, I was learning how my emotions worked. What I believe, what I choose to remember, what I choose to relate from my own past experiences directly influences my feelings. As a kid I often dreamed of discovering a secret button to press to “stop crying” or “stop feeling sad,” and though the idea of memory and belief as the forces that command my emotions did finally offer me a path toward finding my authentic self. Whether these beliefs are conscious or unconscious, I have the power to unpack them, to revise my narrative to find peace and break the emotional weight of change.
In the linoleum lined halls of my high school, I initially felt overwhelmed, and would spend three extra minutes in the bathroom stall after lunch to avoid small talk. I worried about being the star, about appearances, and lunched with those I deemed attractive, popular–student council members and fellow cheerleaders. But I didn’t connect with them in a meaningful way. But changing what I believed, I began to embrace a new story for myself: I was not an outsider, I was just new. I don’t have to sit with the cool kids, I can eat my carrots and cucumbers with Sarah from band or Ali from theater. I could embrace my authentic self without the need for an audience.
By not playing the star, but humbling myself to a journey of time, dedication and investment, I was able to find my own sense of direction. I also understood that performing was a way to connect with others, but also with our past and with ourselves. To reach beyond what seems isolating or different, even if that means playing an old second woman, and find a small piece of myself in her.Brooke’s mock college essay, 2nd draft