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Elizabeth Benedict

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Zen and the Art of Writing Your College Application Essay

Posted: 08/15/11 12:00 PM ET

In case high school seniors and their parents aren't jittery enough about what lies ahead -- College App Apoplexy -- The New York Times raised the stakes recently with an article that spent a day or two on the "most emailed" list: "For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers."

It was good news for all the rising seniors, ten of them on fellowships, who are busy studying the Renaissance in Florence, in time to weave Leonardo, the Medici, and classical proportion into their application essays. The students hope, according to the Times, that "specialized, exotic and sometimes costly activities... will polish a skill, cultivate an interest and put them in the spotlight in a crowded field of straight-A students with strong test scores, community service hours and plenty of extracurricular activities."

There were assurances -- though not many -- for those left behind, geographically and economically. Susan Warner, an independent college counselor, told the Times she tells parents concerned about their kids' summer plans, that "it's as significant to scoop ice cream as it is to build houses in a foreign country."

I'm sure many will appreciate that endorsement; my own first paying job beyond babysitting was scooping ice cream at New York City's first Baskin-Robbins, on Madison Avenue, eons ago. The big news then was a flavor that startled everyone: bubble-gum, with chunks of real gum in it. Thus began the exotic-flavored ice cream revolution.

Now we're in the midst of another revolution, one that requires high school seniors to present themselves as Renaissance Young Men and Women: accomplished, urbane, highly directed, infinitely curious -- and uniquely deserving of a slot at (fill-in-the-blank) College/University. Equal parts Cary Grant, James Franco, and Mark Zuckerberg. My empathy meter is on over-drive.

Any rising seniors still searching for exotic material have a few weeks left in which to expand their horizons -- or try to cadge a job at a local eatery and have meaningful encounters with customers/bosses/co-workers. Whatever you do, take notes, pay attention to your surroundings, and take a page from every serious writer's playbook: "It's all material." You don't need to have explored the Galapagos backwards and in high heels to impress the admissions committee.

Here's the good news -- and bad news -- for all: The playing field will level out when it comes time to sit down and write the actual Common Application essay, which this year is limited to 500 words. Regardless of how students spent their last three summers -- waiting tables or waiting for the Hermitage to open in the morning -- all will have to spend some quality time alone, wondering how and where to begin -- and how to silence the voices of self-doubt and anxiety that are part of the process.

Two Irish Nobel prize-winning writers offer advice that should hover over this undertaking. "All of art and life is about starting out, stopping, and beginning again" -- Seamus Heaney. A slightly darker version of the same sentiment from Samuel Beckett: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Translation: be prepared to do many drafts, until you get it right.

I know from writing seven books and 150 articles and essays that there are no short cuts to writing well. Often, writing short is harder than writing long: the word limit forces us to get to the point, which is hard to do if you're not sure what it is. And I know that even now, without these tricks and guidelines, I'm lost:

1. Fear is Your Friend -- or at least your acquaintance. Don't be afraid of your fear/self-doubt/anxiety; don't wait until the feelings go away to start working. Says Pema Chodron, revered author of When Things Fall Apart: "Fear is a universal experience... It is part of being alive, something we all share."

But if fear or any other feeling takes over and threatens to silence you, here's a writer's trick: Find a small object that will represent the feeling that's getting in your way (a snow globe, a pepper grinder, a stuffed animal). Write the word on a Post-it and attach it to the object. Pick a time limit, say, half an hour, and put the object in a closet, another room, or the family car for that time period. Make a deal with yourself: You'll let the object/feeling back in when the time period is over. Repeat as necessary, if necessary. The lesson: you can learn to control the feeling, not let it control you.

2. Don't Jump in Headfirst: Don't sit down at a blank screen and say to yourself: today, the essay! Keep a notebook with you for weeks as you consider the topics that engage you, the turning points in your life, the events that made profound impressions, the issues that animate you. Don't write in complete sentences. Remember, and write down, moments, lines of dialogue, insights, keywords. You'll find your subject or it will find you. You have a better chance of finding it haphazardly than head on.

3. Turn it Off. Set aside time for the essay daydreams, even if you're just going to scribble notes. Take a walk or a light run, or just sit in silence. Turn off your cell phone, your iPod, your Blackberry, your computer. Disconnect. Pretend you live in ancient times -- before 1995.

4. Remember Raymond Carver. An old story goes that Tolstoy made his wife copy out War and Peace seven times. Kiss your computer with gratitude, and consider Raymond Carver, one of the modern masters of the short story (Where I'm Calling From, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), who used to do up to 30 drafts of a story. When I tell my college writing students this, they usual gasp in unison, and one asks if I expect that of them. No, I don't, but I stress that rewriting is your friend, maybe even your best friend.

5. Timing is Everything. More precisely, time. When I have an important piece to write, whether it's a letter of recommendation or a novel, I give myself plenty of time. I don't mean three days. Pulling an all-nighter is not the way to write a winning essay. (See #4.)

6. Find a Second or Third Pair of Eyes. We write alone, but nothing gets published -- or gets us into college -- that isn't reviewed, critiqued, poked and prodded by many people.

7. Ask for Help. If you're lost, semi-lost, and every turn takes you deeper into the forest, rather than closer to home, ask for help.

Elizabeth Benedict is the bestselling author of five novels, including "Almost," and a classic book on writing fiction. She's taught writing at major colleges and universities for 25 years and coaches students with college application essays at Don't Sweat the Essay.