Well, here you are again, Last Minute Larry. You can't claim innocence -- as usual, you did it to yourself. The deadline you've been dreading is now staring you in the face, and it ain't pretty. On the contrary, it's terrifying. And that big blank white computer screen isn't going to fill itself with words. So what do you do?

Whether you've got a week, a day, or only an hour, here's a simple plan to help you make the most of the time you have left and put your best foot forward.

STEP ONE -- FORGIVE AND FORGET. Yes, you are a bad, bad boy or girl or genderfluid person. Naughty, no biscuit. But forget that noise, because the cycle of self-recrimination and avoidance is what got you here in the first place. You need to forgive yourself for the past, and forget everything but what's in front of you right now. Write it down so you won't forget. X minutes to midnight. Time to get serious.

STEP TWO -- SHUT OUT DISTRACTIONS. I know, I know, you're busy like Lady GaGa. You got so much going on right now it's not even funny. Well you know what would be really funny?  You missing that deadline and having to explain to your parents why you're not going to college/grad school this year. I'd enjoy being a fly on the wall for that conversation, because yes, I'm jaded like that. So lock the door, kick out your cat, shut down your Insta feed and get to work already.

STEP THREE -- WRITE VERY BADLY. Yes, you're a brilliant, clever perfect person who must always and forever be admired. But forget that salient fact for just a minute. Because right at this moment, "you" are a space where some words should be. And it's time to fill that space with words. And no, they're not going to be the best words. In fact, they might be some of the worst words. But that's OK. Because you have to start somewhere, which is exactly what you've failed to do up until this point.

STEP FOUR -- FINISH WITHOUT SELF-CRITIQUE. Write the whole thing, right now, don't stop, don't think, just write.

STEP FIVE -- SHUT DOWN AND WALK AWAY. Go have fun, have a snack. Now, if the worst happens, you can hit submit. Even though you probably wouldn't want to.

STEP SIX -- COME BACK FRESH AND IMPROVE. Come back when you're refreshed and read your bad words. Now it is OK to be a judge, but try to come with solutions, not problems. Say -- I think I could tweak this. I think I can punch up that. Not -- I hate myself and this is so bad.

STEP SEVEN -- FIRE AND FORGET. OK, you've revised, it's 10 minutes to the deadline. Time to send it off and forget about it. I know, now that it's been rattling around in your brain because of how long you spent NOT doing it, that might be tough. But just remember you did the best job YOU were capable of doing AT THIS TIME. And that's always enough. Next time, perhaps, you'll be better. Or maybe you'll be worse.

Good luck!

PS: If you procrastinate and you know it -- maybe get some professional help with that.


Photo by Dinesh Raj Goomani



The college admissions process is stressful in so many different ways. One of the biggest challenges for many college students is the sudden pressure to decide what they're going to pursue as a career. After all, students are quick to point out, I haven't really had a chance to try many things -- or maybe anything at all!  Why are schools asking me in supplemental essays what I want to study, and what I want to do with my life?  Is this some kind of test?

No, it's not a test. And no, you do NOT have to have, at age eighteen, a clear and firm idea of what kind of work you want to do after graduating. That said, for certain disciplines, it can be very helpful to have a general sense of what interests you, and which direction you want to take your career. 

But it's important to remember that nothing is final!  Just because you write about something in an admissions essay, or talk about it to an admissions officer, doesn't mean you're 'locked in' -- you always have the right to change your mind!

***

Here are a few common career paths we encounter at Forster-Thomas, including our advice on each.

IF YOU PLAN TO BE A DOCTOR, you need to start laying the groundwork even before applying to college. Medical school is unbelievably competitive, and most successful candidates are already shadowing and taking relevant coursework at sixteen or seventeen years old. If you're in this camp and applying to college, it's a good idea to let your school know what you're planning to do.

IF YOU PLAN TO BE A LAWYER, don't go into too much detail about it during your undergraduate application process. Express a general interest in law and justice, but leave it at that. And don't pursue pre-law as a major, it generally works against you, rather than for you. Philosophy, engineering and various liberal arts degrees are the most common feeders into law school.

IF YOU PLAN TO GO INTO BUSINESS, again, you don't need to go into very much detail while applying, nor do you need to write about what kind of business you want to pursue. It might be a good idea to join relevant clubs and fraternities shortly after getting on campus, though, since networks make business careers.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THE ARTS, study whatever you like, BA or BFA, but create lots of really good work while you're in college, and take internships as a way to shake hands and start meeting people in your target industry. For classical musicians and theater types, there is some advantage to pursuing relevant BFA programs, although it is not decisive, and certain film BFA programs also confer professional advantages.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN STEM, the proof will largely be in your academic prowess and the history of things you have created and made, competitions entered, et cetera. These are very hierarchical, grade-focused fields, and so it helps to specialize early.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN A TRADE, such as ELECTRICIAN, PLUMBER or AUTO REPAIRMAN, your career path may not involve college at all. In that case, you definitely want to have a pretty clear idea of which trade you'd like to pursue and why you'll be good at it, since you'll probably have to spend a decent chunk of money on training, and it won't be transferable to any other profession.

IF YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO DO AT ALL, you should start to try and figure it out. Undecided is OK, clueless is not. Narrow it down to three or four possible paths, without attempting to eliminate any, prioritize any, or choose between them.

IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN ANY OTHER CAREER, write briefly about it while applying, and indicate a relevant major preference if you have one. But don't get too specific, and be open to other possibilities that may arise along the way.

***
Need help crafting great college essays?  Let us know!

Photo by FADY HABIB. Article by FORSTER-THOMAS, INC.


The 2018-2019 common application questions for college have just been released!  The college board has announced that they will now be updating prompts every two years instead of every year, giving them more time to evaluate feedback from students and educators. Therefore, the prompts and word counts are the same as last year.

First, a few ground rules.  Your word count should be between 250 and 650 words for each question.  Don't feel obligated to use every word -- but don't go over, either.  Double and triple-check your spelling and grammar -- don't get dinged on a technicality!  Read all of the topics and consider each of them before choosing which one you will answer.  Don't choose based on what story about yourself you feel like telling, or what you think the committee 'ought to know' about you -- instead, select a story where you grew, changed or evolved as a person.

THE QUESTIONS

1.  Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Read this prompt carefully.  This is a standard 'diversity' prompt -- which means it asks students to share some distinctive element of their background or upbringing -- BUT the wording is very strong.  Only choose this prompt if your background is so integral to your life that you really can't imagine writing about anything else.

Note that this prompt also invites you to tell a story that is central to your identity -- that could be (for instance) a narrative about personal growth, or about an unexpected friendship or chance encounter -- again, so long as it is central to who you now are as a person, it's fair game.

2.  The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

The common App has softened this prompt, perhaps after a bunch of complaints of being triggered by even thinking about past failures … 😊  So now, you can write about a challenge, setback or failure. But guess what – you should still write about a failure. If you don’t feel up to it, or don’t think you have a strong failure to discuss, then call us. But seriously, if you don’t have a strong failure, you should pick another prompt, you certainly have plenty to choose between.

OTOH, if you're applying to a reach school, or if you're concerned about other areas of your application, this prompt is your chance to stand out from the crowd and make an impression.  Nothing grabs admissions officers' attention as quickly as a well-thought-out failure essay, particularly because most students run screaming from this kind of prompt.

So what makes a great failure essay?  We cover this at length in our MBA admissions book, but the fundamentals are this -- you need a singular, powerful failure narrative where you failed not just yourself, but others you cared about.  The failure must be absolute -- no saving the day at the last minute.  It must point to some underlying aspect of your character which you then identify (stubbornness, overcaution, arrogance).  You finish up the failure essay by telling a brief (50-100 word) anecdote about how you have changed as a result of this failure -- use concrete examples here! 

3.  Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome

The flipside of the failure essay, the challenge (or as we call it, the leadership) essay is one of the most commonly seen essays on the common application.  This, too, has been weasel-worded down to a softer “questioned or challenged”, but your story about that time you asked the teacher if you really had to sit at the front of the class all year is NOT good essay material, trust us.

If you have accomplished something that was exceptionally challenging for you and really shaped who you are as a person, this is your prompt.  If you are just looking to brag about your killer grade in that AP History class or your five goals in the championship bocce match, this is NOT your prompt.  Move along.

When thinking about challenges, students always want to focus on the external -- what happened and why it's impressive.  This is the wrong approach. The question-writers are giving you a very big clue when they ask you to describe what prompted your thinking – they want to understand how your mind works. The important story to tell is how you GOT to the impressive result -- and what you thought about, did and said that led to that result.

Finally, remember that these types of stories work best and are most impressive when you're motivating other kids (or adults!) to excel -- contrary to what your lovin' mother told you, it ain't all about you.

4.  Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

This prompt is a somewhat unusual spin on a common theme of transformation and growth.  There is an obvious STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) spin to this question -- after all, a laboratory experiment or a planned course of study fits into this prompt very neatly.  But resist the urge to get completely technical and step outside your own experience!  Remember that whatever prompt you choose for your essay, the central figure in the story is you -- your challenges, your growth, your maturity.

This prompt also might be a good choice for students who have been fortunate enough to have interesting experiences in unusual places and contexts.  Worked on a social issue overseas?  Spent eight months living with the Amish?  Shadowed a researcher at CERN?  This could be your prompt.

5.  Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Rites of passage can be fascinating topics for essays -- if they're handled well.  No one wants to hear about how grandpa cried at your confirmation -- snoozefest!  Becoming an adult is about accepting the responsibilities, limitations and joys of being human, and so should your essay.

The focus on a particular event is important.  It's very easy when writing an essay to drift from one subject to another, but great essays have a singular focus -- they're about one thing and one thing only.  In this case, the event or accomplishment in question and why it became a period of maturation.

It’s also worth noting the emphasis on understanding others. Surprising or difficult events often deepen our ability to empathize with others’ struggles – if you have a story that involves learning to see the world in a new way, this could well be your prompt.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]

This is a brand new prompt, for those of you who are just 100 percent not comfortable talking about yourselves in any way, shape or form. Now, before you breathe a sigh of relief and rush off to write yet another paean to microbiomes or Martin Luther King, let us insert a caveat. This is usually the wrong kind of prompt to choose. For most people, most of the time, you’re going to get an essay that’s dry, technical, and reveals nothing about the candidate – in other words, a waste of word count.

In order to write a good essay about an idea or concept, you have to loop in … feelings!  Yours and others.  Talk about the people who share your passion, or the ones who inspired it. Talk about the key moments in the development of your favorite obsession – how did it all begin, where do you see it going?  Relate it back to larger themes in your life. How has this experience helped you to grow and mature?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]

This is what we call an open-ended prompt. You can do whatever you want with it, which most folks find utterly terrifying. Not to worry – this should really be a last resort prompt if you have a fantastic essay already written that just doesn’t seem to fit any of the other prompts.

--

So there you have it!  Not so scary after all, huh?  Still, you probably have a lot of questions as yet unanswered.  Or maybe you have a draft all written up and you want some seasoned eyes to take a look?  If so, drop us a line -- we'd be happy to help!

PHOTO BY CLINT MASON

Article by Mark Puner, photo by Martin Fisch

As Forster-Thomas’s Chief Editor, I spend a lot of my time thinking about my limits. Word limits, that is. Contrary to popular belief, a genie will not appear in order to grant your every wish when you submit your personal statement at the exact word count. (Two myths debunked: genies aren’t real, word counts are.) But I will be singing your praises, or whoever else is helping you edit your essays.

Word counts are not an attack, a punishment, a test or a deterrent. Believe it or not, they’re actually helpful, once you understand why they exist. They’re forcing you to focus, to be judicious and selective about what you choose to say, and what you choose to leave out.

Consider the Common App’s maximum word allotment of 650 in terms of time, either 6:50 a.m. or 6:50 p.m. A train leaves the station at 6:50…

For STEM students:

If a train leaves the station at 6:50, it’s best to arrive early. This is an approximation of the train’s departure time. It does not account for the time you will spend buying a ticket, figuring out which track the train arrives on, or pondering multi-differential equations in the meantime.

For non-STEM students:

Get there early

For everyone:

Leave some cushion

As someone who has read your essay at every stop along the way, I invariably like the express version—the passion of your first draft combined with spit and polish that takes time to cull. Yes, this is easier said than done. No, this will not exceed 630 words. At 6:30 everyone can comfortably enjoy the ride to the next destination. No genies needed.

Have questions about how to get your essay down to size?  Contact me!



Article by Ben Feuer, photo by Rosemary Voegtli

There are literally thousands of secondary essays put out by medical schools each and every year. But most of those essays can be subdivided into specific categories and dealt with in groups. In this blog, we’re discussing the ‘practice’ category.

DEFINITION OF THE PRACTICE CATEGORY

 

Any medical school secondary essay touching on a student’s ambitions as a doctor or plans for a future medical practice. Some of the prompts emphasize certain disciplines, others emphasize time-frames (10-15 years after graduation, for example), and other ask about the student’s degree of interest in research.

 

EXAMPLES OF SECONDARY PROMPTS IN THE PRACTICE CATEGORY

 

Are there any areas of medicine that are of particular interest to you? If so, please comment. 

 

The ultimate goal of our institution is to produce a population of physicians with a collective desire to improve health of all segments of our society through the outstanding patient care, research and education. In this context, where do you see your future medical career (academic medicine, research, public health, primary care, business/law, etc.) and why? Your answer need not be restricted to one category. If your plans require that you complete a dual degree program, please elaborate here. 

 

What medical specialty are you thinking about pursuing at this point?

 

Please describe the basic and/or clinical research fields that you think you might like to explore and/or develop expertise in during your MSTP training. To the extent that you have defined potential specific future clinical interests, please describe the type(s) of medicine that you might be interested in pursuing once you have completed the MSTP.

 

How will the University of Connecticut School of Medicine best serve your needs of becoming a physician or physician scientist?

 

What are your aspirations for your medical practice? Fast-forward to 15 years in the

future: where do you imagine yourself? 

 

TECHNIQUE FOR ANSWERING THE PRACTICE CATEGORY

 

Medical school secondary essays can be divided into two basic subtypes – narrative essays, which require the applicant to tell a story, and factual essays, which require the applicant to answer a series of factual questions.  The practice essay is a factual essay, so brainstorming should be centered around the specifics of the type of career the applicant wants to pursue.

 

Always answer this type of question narrowly. In other words, if a school doesn’t ask you what specialty you are interested in pursuing, don’t tell them. Answer only the questions you are asked by each school, as each wants to know a different set of things.

 

Although this type of essay is primarily about simple, direct factual answers to questions, it’s still important to have reasons and stories behind your choices. For instance, suppose you wanted to pursue a blend of research and clinical – why is it important to you to pursue both?  Or, say you wanted to start a practice in a small town – why would you prefer that to a big city?  By telling schools your reasoning, you invite them to engage with (and support) your way of thinking.

 

Remember that you are answering a question about the distant future, so it’s more important to have a clear emotional plan in your mind – the types of people you want to help, and why – than it is to have a perfected road map, which would have to change anyway.

 

***

 

Do you have more questions about this secondary essay, or about other secondary essays?  Feel free to contact us and we’ll be happy to help.



By Ben Feuer, photo by Steven Lilley

The 2017-2018 common application questions have been released into the wild. This year they’re pretty consistent with other recent years, but there are a few new twists, so read carefully.

First, a few ground rules.  Your word count should be between 250 and 650 words for each question.  Don't feel obligated to use every word -- but don't go over, either.  Double and triple-check your spelling and grammar -- don't get dinged on a technicality!  Read all of the topics and consider each of them before choosing which one you will answer.  Don't choose based on what story about yourself you feel like telling, or what you think the committee 'ought to know' about you -- instead, select a story where you grew, changed or evolved as a person.

THE QUESTIONS

1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Read this prompt carefully. This is a standard 'diversity' prompt -- which means it asks students to share some distinctive element of their background or upbringing -- BUT the wording is very strong. Only choose this prompt if your background is so integral to your life that you really can't imagine writing about anything else.

Note that this prompt also invites you to tell a story that is central to your identity -- that could be (for instance) a narrative about personal growth, or about an unexpected friendship or chance encounter -- again, so long as it is central to who you now are as a person, it's fair game.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

The common App has softened this prompt, perhaps after a bunch of complaints of being triggered by even thinking about past failures … 😊 So now, you can write about a challenge, setback or failure. But guess what – you should still write about a failure. If you don’t feel up to it, or don’t think you have a strong failure to discuss, then call us. But seriously, if you don’t have a strong failure, you should pick another prompt, you certainly have plenty to choose between.

OTOH, if you're applying to a reach school, or if you're concerned about other areas of your application, this prompt is your chance to stand out from the crowd and make an impression. Nothing grabs admissions officers' attention as quickly as a well-thought-out failure essay, particularly because most students run screaming from this kind of prompt.

So what makes a great failure essay? We cover this at length in our MBA admissions book, but the fundamentals are this -- you need a singular, powerful failure narrative where you failed not just yourself, but others you cared about. The failure must be absolute -- no saving the day at the last minute. It must point to some underlying aspect of your character which you then identify (stubbornness, overcaution, arrogance). You finish up the failure essay by telling a brief (50-100 word) anecdote about how you have changed as a result of this failure -- use concrete examples here!

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

The flipside of the failure essay, the challenge (or as we call it, the leadership) essay is one of the most commonly seen essays on the common application. This, too, has been weasel-worded down to a softer “questioned or challenged”, but your story about that time you asked the teacher if you really had to sit at the front of the class all year is NOT good essay material, trust us.

If you have accomplished something that was exceptionally challenging for you and really shaped who you are as a person, this is your prompt. If you are just looking to brag about your killer grade in that AP History class or your five goals in the championship bocce match, this is NOT your prompt. Move along.

When thinking about challenges, students always want to focus on the external -- what happened and why it's impressive. This is the wrong approach. The question-writers are giving you a very big clue when they ask you to describe what prompted your thinking – they want to understand how your mind works. The important story to tell is how you GOT to the impressive result -- and what you thought about, did and said that led to that result.

Finally, remember that these types of stories work best and are most impressive when you're motivating other kids (or adults!) to excel -- contrary to what your lovin' mother told you, it ain't all about you.

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

This prompt is a somewhat unusual spin on a common theme of transformation and growth. There is an obvious STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) spin to this question -- after all, a laboratory experiment or a planned course of study fits into this prompt very neatly. But resist the urge to get completely technical and step outside your own experience! Remember that whatever prompt you choose for your essay, the central figure in the story is you -- your challenges, your growth, your maturity.

This prompt also might be a good choice for students who have been fortunate enough to have interesting experiences in unusual places and contexts. Worked on a social issue overseas? Spent eight months living with the Amish? Shadowed a researcher at CERN? This could be your prompt.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Rites of passage can be fascinating topics for essays -- if they're handled well. No one wants to hear about how grandpa cried at your confirmation -- snoozefest! Becoming an adult is about accepting the responsibilities, limitations and joys of being human, and so should your essay.

The focus on a particular event is important. It's very easy when writing an essay to drift from one subject to another, but great essays have a singular focus -- they're about one thing and one thing only. In this case, the event or accomplishment in question and why it became a period of maturation.

It’s also worth noting the emphasis on understanding others. Surprising or difficult events often deepen our ability to empathize with others’ struggles – if you have a story that involves learning to see the world in a new way, this could well be your prompt.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]

This is a brand new prompt, for those of you who are just 100 percent not comfortable talking about yourselves in any way, shape or form. Now, before you breathe a sigh of relief and rush off to write yet another paean to microbiomes or Martin Luther King, let us insert a caveat. This is usually the wrong kind of prompt to choose. For most people, most of the time, you’re going to get an essay that’s dry, technical, and reveals nothing about the candidate – in other words, a waste of word count.

In order to write a good essay about an idea or concept, you have to loop in … feelings! Yours and others. Talk about the people who share your passion, or the ones who inspired it. Talk about the key moments in the development of your favorite obsession – how did it all begin, where do you see it going? Relate it back to larger themes in your life. How has this experience helped you to grow and mature?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]

This is what we call an open-ended prompt. You can do whatever you want with it, which most folks find utterly terrifying. Not to worry – this should really be a last resort prompt if you have a fantastic essay already written that just doesn’t seem to fit any of the other prompts.

--

So there you have it!  Not so scary after all, huh?  Still, you probably have a lot of questions as yet unanswered.  Or maybe you have a draft all written up and you want some seasoned eyes to take a look?  If so, drop us a line -- we'd be happy to help!


By Ben Feuer. Photo by Morgan Sherwood

Every year, a few students get into schools (and newspapers) by writing totally unconventional essays. Essays that break the mold, that reinvent the basics, and that often completely ignore the question asked and the school’s requirements. But, hey, essays are an art form, and art is all about breaking the rules – right?

Sure. But there’s a smart way and a dumb way to take risks. And if you’re planning to be this year’s Ziad Ahmed and write that crazy, bare-your-soul tone poem in place of an essay, check out this advice first.

***

SOME GROUND RULES

Don’t write a risky essay for a match or safety school – you’re better off simply taking your chances with a strong, compelling conventional essay and seeing how it goes.  You only write a risky, hail-mary essay for a reach school. 

You should always seek the approval and agreement of coaches, counselors and family members before embarking on a strategy.  Note that I didn’t say they have to approve of all your choices or your final draft – if you’re choosing to take a risk, do so by your own rules – but you should at least make sure you’re not missing something important or obvious before making a bold move. 

Make sure the ‘risky’ essay you’re writing is actually risky. A lot of the time, people think they’re being daring and original when they’re really just being derivative or obnoxious. Again, use your lifelines on the risky essay – not so people can tell you what to write, but so that you can gauge their honest reactions to what you have written.  And don’t copycat what got a lot of press last year. That’s the complete opposite of risky.

Don’t make your first-ever essay a risky essay. If you’re new to the essay writing game, start with some of the easier ones, and work your way up to the crazy ones.  That way, you’ll be sure of who you are as a candidate and what you have to offer before going off the deep end.

HOW DO I WRITE A RISKY ESSAY?

The whole point of risky essays is that they are cheeky, original and daring. So you should already have a pretty good idea of what you want to write about. If you don’t have a strong concept, why are you even considering a risky essay in the first place?

Now that you have your concept, make sure it aligns with all the other aspects of your candidacy. Consider Ziad Ahmed again (linked above) – he considered himself first and foremost a provocateur and activist, so his provocative, activism-themed ‘essay’ fit his candidacy to a T.  The purpose of an essay is to reveal who you are, to give the committee a strong sense of who they’re considering admitting. If you’re going to break the rules, you have to be giving them twice as strong of a sense.

Write your first draft quickly. Don’t slow down or give yourself too much time to second guess. Remember that a draft is just that, a draft. If it doesn’t work, chuck it and do something new instead. But trust your instincts. They’re what drove you to make this decision in the first place, so stick with them, and they’ll stick with you.

***

Writing an essay, any essay, is hard, but writing a risky essay is four times harder. Like the best modern art, it may look simple, but the simple exterior conceals a lot of truth and authenticity (and hard thinking) beneath the surface. The risky essay is not for everyone – remember, for every one student who gets in this way, 1000 are getting in the old-fashioned way, by doing the work and answering the question asked. But if you’re a risk-taker, you’re not about playing the odds anyway, are you?


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Shaping your essay-writing environment



Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Tim Taylor

Many people underestimate the importance of environment when it comes to writing a great set of essays for college or graduate school. They figure, "I'll just squeeze this in when I can ... after all, what difference does it make when I do it, as long as I do it?"  Actually, it can make a huge difference!  How effective your writing sessions are, and how many new ideas you're able to come up with, is deeply impacted by the way you prepare for and spend your precious writing time.  So, since we're all writing veterans here at Forster-Thomas, we wanted to share a couple of our best tips with you.


Everyone has an optimal time of day for writing.  For some, it's the morning. For others, the evening. But you'll know you've hit your 'sweet spot' when your mind is at its clearest, and least distractable. This is the time when most of your best ideas are going to come.
Shut off distractions. Even one notification or alarm can take up to fifteen minutes to recover from. You'll get the work done a lot more quickly if you shut off all your dings, dongs and bleeps until you're done with the difficult work of crafting your first draft.
Create a pattern. Unless you're extraordinarily lucky, the muse isn't going to show up the first time you come calling for her. It often takes a few days of marinating on the problem, trying approaches that don't work, and fumbling with your own memories, before you're able to hit on the opening that 'feels right'.  So instead of setting aside a block of time on one day, set aside a little time, even a half-hour or an hour, over several days. Get used to getting into a writing mode.
Forgive mistakes. Writer-brain and editor-brain are two very different creatures.  You're going to be a lot happier with your results if you shut off editor-brain for awhile. You'll know him when you hear him, he's the one who second-guesses and nit-picks every idea you come up with. The problem with editor-brain early in the process is that it prevents you from completing a thought and seeing where it takes you. Even if the beginning isn't promising, the day's explorations may uncover a few gems. So just start where you start, and go where you go, and worry about cleaning everything up later.


So there you have it!  A few simple, practical tips to make writing easier.  Of course, if you're still having trouble, you can always give us a call -- but then, you were already planning to do that, weren't you?

Article by Ben Feuer, photo by jarito

What to write about?  Many people find this the most intimidating question of all when they first sit down and get to work.  After all, most people know (or think that they know) how to string a few words, paragraphs or sentences together.  But it can be very hard, living in the moment, to have any sense of what the key themes are in your life, let alone how they’ve changed or evolved over time.

And yet, those are precisely the questions you need to answer, and answer with precision, if you want to write a great personal essay for college, graduate school, your next New York Times opinion piece or anything else.  Personal essay writing, or short stories drawn from your life experience, follows many of the same rules as all good writing.  You need to know what you’re trying to say, why you’re trying to say it, and how your audience is likely to approach your work.  You need to have patience with ideas and themes as they develop, rather than settling for the first thing that comes into your head.  You need courage to face the times when you get stuck, or just can’t think of anything to say.

So are there any tricks, tips or ideas that can help you generate new topics, or new approaches to old topics?  Fortunately, the answer is yes!

Get a fresh perspective.  If you’re stuck, ask a friend or a relative, a mom or a dad, someone who knows you and your topic pretty well, for advice.  Don’t show them your essay or tell them what you’re planning to do – that might pollute their own memory.  Just ask them, in an open-ended way, to share their experiences and memories about a certain time or topic.  You’ll be surprised to learn that their memories often differ substantially from yours, both as to what happened and how people felt about it at the time, and they just might inspire something you didn’t consider earlier.

Take advantage of flow and focus.  Before you write, read something that inspires you for fifteen minutes – some writing you consider top-notch (and something that is in the same style as what you intend to do).  Then take a deep breath and forget it – after all, you’re not trying to copy, just feel motivated.  Once you’ve got your motivation, work in silence or with some light background noise (classical music works well for me) in a concentrated block of approximately 45-50 minutes, taking breaks not to think about other things, but to perform mindless tasks like stretching, taking out the garbage or shaving.  Approaching writing in this manner will clarify your intentions and help you to write exactly what you are thinking in that moment.

Start over.  It takes distance to evaluate writing, and if you’re trying to evaluate your own writing, that can be particularly hard to achieve.  So once you’ve finished a draft, pat yourself on the back and go do something else for a day or so.  Then return to it and try to figure out what you were writing about, what you were saying.  Force yourself to sum up everything you ACTUALLY WROTE (rather than what you were intending to write) in a sentence.  What message have you conveyed with these words?  Is there growth, progression, change?  Does it start quickly and end with a fun surprise or an emotional payoff?  If your sentence doesn’t correspond to what you were imagining (or if you’ve since come up with a better idea), start the process over fresh with a brand new document, rather than trying to rewrite.  You can always mix and match your favorite parts later.

Of course, there are many other things you can do to improve your ability to write on themes, but these are a few of the most helpful core ideas.  If you’re still struggling and want some guidance, feel free to reach out to us – we’re always happy to help.




Article by Ben Feuer, Photo by Kamaljith KV.

Do you watch The Voice?  No?  Your loss, girlfriend. We do, and it's taught us a lot over the years.

One of the things you quickly notice is that it takes more than just a great set of pipes to make the cut -- after all, there are way more top-notch singers than there are opportunities for said singers to make ends meet. And in the end, on a competition show, there can be only one. So how do you make the choice between two singers, equally qualified, equally driven?

Go to the backstory.

That's what the producers of the show do every day. They plumb the depths of family history, trying to ferret out those little nuggets of gold that take a competitor from being just another voice in the crowd to an unforgettable story echoing across the hills.
What's all this got to do with essays?

Simple. You may not have a producer, but you are on a competition show. It's called applying to graduate school. And you'd better not be thinking that a couple of mindless sound bytes about your professional accomplishments, film festival placements or showy shadowing experiences are going to set you apart from the pack. On the contrary; they're likely to bury you inside it even more deeply.

What is unique about me?  This is a question that many people find terrifying. Understandable -- it's extremely nerve-wracking to stand out. It's not easy being different. But it is important, when writing essays, passing outlines to recommenders, shooting videos and prepping for interviews, that you have a sense of yourself, and one of the best places to start looking is your own family tree.

Start with the basics. What did your father do for a living? Your mother? Who was your primary caregiver? Where did you grow up? How big of an extended family did you have? How close are you to your brothers and sisters, in age and in mindset?  What role do you play in the family, and who was your role model?  Do you pride yourself on being the same, or different, from the people who surround you? 

These questions, and the dozens of others like them, serve as the root of your identity. You are not your numbers, nor are you your resume. You are the amalgam of the influences that have shaped you over the years. Whoever raised you, their values and beliefs are imprinted on you, unconsciously, most likely, so it's important that you be able to enumerate what the heck they are!

Develop a hypothesis. It's not enough to assemble facts. People need stories to make sense of the world, and you will need a story to understand what your childhood meant to you. It may be a profound story, or a rather simple one. It may have a happy ending, a sad one, or the story may be in process (unfinished). That's fine, but you still need to understand what it is. In a paragraph or two, start assembling the various data points into a cohesive narrative. I am the son of two immigrants, who taught me to work hard and with integrity. I am the wild child of a brilliant family, and I have spent my entire life so far looking for somewhere to belong. I am the overachiever who no one expected to go anywhere, least of all my alcoholic mother. There are no wrong answers, and no right ones. Only true ones.

See your family as characters. Write brief physical descriptions of them, like you were describing a stranger. Try to simplify their personality into two or three basic ideas. Give the world a thumbnail sketch of the people who were in your life, and it'll go a long way to helping them understand you.  

Write fearlessly. The greatest enemy most people face in the essay writing process is their own reluctance to speak, clearly and forcefully, about the things they have seen, done and overcome. You can turn this weakness into a strength if you are willing to open up, willing to accept imperfections in yourself and those you love. There are no saints, no perfect people, so why pretend that you and your loved ones just happen to be the exception?

***

This is just the beginning of your journey. Writing about family doesn't just make for a great essay or two, it can also be the beginning of new clarity about who you are and why you do what you do. And, if you can carry a tune, it might get you on a stage in front of a panel of celebrity judges. So sharpen your pencils and get to work (and if you get stuck, call).