You don't have to be a mother to write great admissions essays. But as Evan Forster explains, knowing how to raise a critter sure is helpful. 

Uncle David once said in regard to good writing: “First you have to give birth to the baby. Then you can raise it to be President of the United States.” When I heard that, my first thought was, What does David know about having babies? My second thought was, What does this have to do with writing?

Since my dear friend Pia, mother of two perfect girls, had her own saying about birthin’ babies—something to the effect of “Get this alien thing out of my body!”—I asked her what Uncle David may have meant. “It means, ‘Don’t get ahead of yourself!’” she said.  “First you have to pop the kid out before you can make something of it. With that, Pia said, “I have to go. Lily will never be President someday if she doesn’t make it to her algebra tutorial THIS day!”

So, writing essays is like birthin’ babies...they don’t spring out of your forehead like Athena, perfectly formed: You have to raise them, guide them, nurture them.

As often as I tell my candidates this, they just as often forget it. The other day, I received an all-too-common phone call from Julia, a top-notch candidate with great writing skills. She was in a complete panic: “I’ve been staring at my computer screen for hours, and I can’t get past the first sentence of my leadership essay!” she whined.

Despite the fact that we had chosen the subject matter and gone over every detail of her essay about launching the first-ever Cornell Young Alumni Program, she could barely put the first words—“it was January of 2009”—on the page. She was pounding herself with questions. Should she start off with, “It was late on a Friday afternoon in January”? Or was it better to be specific, and write “It was 4pm”? Should she then follow it up with a description of the warring personalities in the group’s Executive Committee? And, if so, should she mention all of their first names, or just two? The list went on and on.

Julia is far from our only candidate who is overly concerned about being perfect, and who has second-guessed herself before putting a single word on the page.

“Should I… What if I… Would it be better if I...” are simply pointless questions at the initial stage of essay writing. They only serve to spin your wheels. Your essay is like that baby in the womb—it doesn’t have to be perfect right away. You actually have to give birth to something complete, with a beginning, middle, and end, before you can correct and re-correct (or edit and re-edit) all of the flaws that come with a newborn essay.

So, what’s the key to a great essay?

Steps:

  1. Throw caution to the wind.
  2. Ignore yourself.
  3. Push that first draft out of you.

NOW, you can edit.

So people, it’s essay season. Start writing, and whatever comes out, comes out. You’ll deal with whatever happens after you give birth to the first draft. But in the absence of a first draft, you cannot possibly raise it to be the President-of-the-United-States draft that you know it can be.