Effective Strategies to Beat Writer’s Block and Craft a Sensational College Admissions Essay

By Margaret M. Kelly & Christopher Hathaway – Partners, Dimension Admissions

With Admissions Season in full swing, high school seniors have donned their thinking caps and picked up their literal or figurative pens with every intention of crafting a sensational essay to unbolt the gates to their dream schools.

If only it were that easy…

Look, we’ve all been there: staring at a blank, cavernous page. Time lost to the metronomic blink of a cursor. Our mind wiped clean of ideas, clear as a cloudless horizon.

How do You Overcome Writer’s Block in Admissions Essay Writing?

Writing, like the truth, is rarely pure and never simple. It takes grit to get the words out when the muse is on vacay. This is true across genres, but certainly when it comes to crafting superior admissions essays. Writing is hard. Writing about ourselves, especially with a self-promotional bent, no matter how subtle, is even harder. Which makes sense. From a young age, most of us were taught to practice humility, especially if you had something worth bragging about. Even if you grew up in a home that celebrated your every accomplishment—from playing Tree #4 in the first-grade musical, to placing 17th in the middle-school science fair—the symphony of celebration was conducted in your honor. You were not there tooting your own horn. And yet, that’s precisely what you need to do now, only subtly, implicitly, owning the precipitous terrain of the humble brag.  When you’re sitting down to write your admissions essay, there are no cheer-leaders and there’s no applause—it’s just you, and your thoughts, and all that blank-space.

So, what do you do when you’re trying to generate an ivy-caliber essay and your mind goes blank as the page? Read on for insights and exercises that can help you knock-out writer’s block and make sure it’s down for the count.

Shift Your Angle on the Task: Don’t Brag, Reveal 

Sometimes, shifting your angle on your project can move mountains. Other times it won’t budge an inch. But often it can help to consider what you’re writing self-revelatory instead of self-promotional. The goal is not to crow about your accomplishments, but rather to reveal yourself to your admissions reader—they already have full access to your resume, so consider this an opportunity to tell them a story, help them get to know you, what makes you tick. Ideally, you’ll leave them wanting to get to know you even better, and believing in your potential enough to throw open those ivy gates.

Try 6-Minute Unstoppable Sprints 

This is one of our favorite writing exercises at Dimension: sit down with a pen—yes, a pen, that old-timey implement once used to draft snail-mail—pull out your favorite notebook, open to a fresh page, set a timer and start writing. Your first six-minute sprint can have absolutely no prompt other than to just plaster the page with what’s on your mind. It need not be neat. It need not be beautiful. It need not even make a ton of sense. Just free-write without stopping. This is an excellent way to clear away mental clutter to free space, at last, to think great thoughts.

After your sprint, get up for a minute, take a walk, grab a cup of coffee, hug your dog, and then sit back down for sprint #2, which involves a bit more direction. Pick a topic that’s relevant to the admissions essays you dream of writing—either your favorite extracurricular; your proudest moment; your darkest hour where you demonstrated resilience; your reasons for wanting to attend your dream school, etc. Whatever topic you choose, set your timer and start writing without stopping for the established interval (we recommend six minutes, but really, whatever short interval suits you will work just fine).

In our experience, something about the dynamism of physically putting ink to page without breaks can blast away writer’s block quite brilliantly. You’ll surely be surprised what comes out when your principal goal is to just keep moving. Forcing your hand into motion coaxes your brain into motion, too, lowering your cognitive inhibitions and letting it all out. You can repeat this process as many times as you want, rereading what spills out and mining it for essay material. Trust us, there will be some gold in there. Even if it’s just a sentence you can use as a diving board, you’ll be shocked at how far 6-minutes can take you.

Note: If you’re absolutely against the thought of using a pen and paper (which we strongly suggest you use), perform the same exercise on the computer, but place a sheet of paper over the screen so you’re not tempted to look back at what you’ve written. You can also use a program like Squibler, the “most dangerous writing app,” which forces you to keep writing or lose everything.

Still feeling frustrated? Don’t worry. Writer’s block is surprisingly common, especially for those attempting to craft a stellar admissions essay. The graph below illustrates just how challenging writing can be for students.

Now, with that dose of solidarity, let's try some other techniques...

If Full Sentences Feel too Daunting, Brainstorm by Creating Lists

If at the moment writing full paragraphs feels too daunting, it can help to make a list. We call these bullet-point blast offs! Start small, bulleting early childhood victories, most (if not all) of which you won’t use in the essay, but which can make writing about recent accomplishments more fluid. These bullets might include discoveries (a talent), revelations (an interest), or even thought-fallacies (life is hard). You might consider creating columns for particular themes or topics to help guide your brainstorm (e.g. proudest achievements, personal revelations, triumphs through adversity. Remember, this is not a graded assignment. Your goal here is generation, not perfection. (Note: a nice side benefit of this type of brainstorming is the creation of a content repository, which will help you to prepare responses to college interview questions).

A premise of the six-minute sprints (see: “Overcoming Writer’s Block Part I”) is that writing without structure can take you to surprising new terrain; this exercise might have a similar outcome, but the objective is to get there by way of a highly structured path. Paradoxically, confining your thoughts to short bursts—none longer than a line— can be liberating. So, try not to be restrictive in terms of what makes it onto the list. The goal is to get something—anything—out on the page, and to structure it with some form of logic. Besides, if you look at successful college essay examples, you’ll likely notice a variation in sentence length and structure. Some of these simple one-offs might actually serve as the foundation for your essay.

So, take 30 minutes to draft your first list, and see what flows forth. Ultimately, as with the products of your sprints, you will mine the bulleted material for golden eggs from which a sensational essay may hatch. Finally, in addition to a winning topic, you’ll have plenty of content to populate the first draft of your essay, making the writing process far more efficient and rewarding.

Use Mind Maps for Max Impact—Sit Down, Associate, Scribble with Abandon

If you’re a visual learner, Mind Mapping can be a wonderful way of organizing your thoughts and stretching each thread of your memory to its limit. It’s a way to unshackle your thoughts, drop your inhibitions, and get you writing from your heart. As it happens, when you write from your heart, your sentences acquire new intimacy, new propulsion—a pulse. Mind Mapping exercises are associative by nature. Your map doesn’t have to be a work of art, it just needs to be vaguely comprehensible—at least to you. This is how it works: write an essay topic or theme in the middle of your blank page and circle it. Draw a line outward from your center circle and write the first, related thing that comes to mind. Expand until no new thought bubbles are possible. In effect, these sequences of thought may become paragraphs. One trick to complete your mind map once you think you’ve reached its limit is to consider your senses. For instance, if you set out to Mind Map an essay about your love for the ocean, you might by powers of association (connected by thought bubbles, of course) reach the tropics.

From there, you might branch off into the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of those tropical places and what you like about them most. You might, for instance, think about your delight in tasting passion fruit for the first time. Will you discuss your love of passion fruits in any of your application essays? Probably not. But, the process of Mind Mapping on any topic will tell you something about your preferences and your experiences, in general. Your Mind Map might even say something about what you value. Mind Map thoughts about a piece of fruit, and who knows? In your mind’s eye, you might end up floating on a big pink bird in a sky-blue sea, contemplating the scourge of cruise liners and how to advocate on behalf of our oceans worldwide.

Use mind-mapping as a visual alternative to the list, another structured way to free up your flow of ideas by charting flights of fancy. Once your mind-map is a series of connections sprawling across the page, you can stop and take stock of where you started, where you ended up, and the insights gleaned along the way. Armed with fresh material, you’ll wipe writer’s block right off your mind’s map and venture forward with grace and gusto.

If you're not over the hump, we've got one more trick up our sleeve to suggest...

Prize the Pomodoro Technique (Work at Intervals with Built-in Breaks)

The Pomodoro Technique, officially endorsed by the National Institute of Health, is another strategy we embrace at Dimension. We use the app because it’s free and has a catchy name and logo, but really any stopwatch kitchen timer will suffice—the old-school analog is even recommended for those prone to digital distraction. Though timing is again the name of the game, the premise of the Pomodoro Method diverges from that of the sprints by being more about structure than content. Still, it’s an elixir to remedy procrastination, attention-deficits, and wandering minds worldwide.

The concept is simple: set for yourself a small task—finish a few back-to-back sprints; or tackle a bullet-point blast-off; or craft a mind-map—set your timer for 25 minutes, and begin. Consider the Pomodoro (or whatever you choose to name your timer… Galileo, Roxanne?) an indivisible unit of time that cannot be broken—not for checking texts, or emails, or surfing Buzzfeed, or falling down YouTube rabbit holes, or decluttering your desk, or drifting-off to moody singer/song-writers, or any one of a million things our minds can devise for us as distractions from putting words on the page. (Almost) anything can wait 25 minutes.

So, find a quiet room in your house, or a corner table in your favorite café, or a cushioned library nook; clean your work-surface, if necessary; don your headphones, if that’s your thing; start your timer’s countdown, and enjoy a 25-minute sanctuary from your worldly concerns—a time where all that matters is you, your pen, and your page (or your keys/screen, though we have a soft-spot for pen/paper-forward solutions at Dimension).

For some writers, blocking off multiple hours for essay drafting (or application crafting) can have a deoxygenating effect. But when you’re clear with yourself that all you need to do is generate sentences, or outlines, or lists, or mind-maps (or any number of application tasks) for 25 minutes and 25 minutes alone, a delectable pressure-release often ensues. And you find yourself making progress—real progress—toward your desired end. Once you start linking together Pomodoros with genuine, refreshing breaks in between, your productivity knows no limits.

As touched on above, Pomodoros can be exceptionally useful for focused essay-crafting, and can also be called on for many other aspects of the application process—one packed with discrete tasks that lend themselves to short bursts of true productivity. From building your activities list, to creating and refining your resume, to filling out paperwork, to requesting recommendations and, if you’re an athlete, reaching out to coaches, there are all kinds individual projects that can be knocked-out with well-applied Pomodoros.

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With that, we conclude our three-part series on how to knock-out the block! We hope you’re feeling newly-empowered to get in the ring with writer’s block, and take it down for the count!

Still struggling with writer’s block? Book a free consultation with the admissions experts at Dimension.