Welcome to Liz’s Lemonade Stand, where the lemons of life are twisted into the sweeti lemonade.
The beginning of college application season is upon us, and here at The Prospect, we’re gearing up for all-out college app insanity. At this time last year, I had no idea where I wanted to go to school. Sure, I had a few favorites, but I still didn’t know where I was going to apply. I entertained the idea of getting the Common App done before school started and even looked into obtaining the essay prompts of a few schools, but that didn’t happen. In my defense, I was busy annotating all five million pages of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
Once school started, I got caught up in researching and writing my Extended Essay (EE), a beast required by the IB diploma. College apps were always in the back of my mind, lurking around like a possessed shadow, but I was too stressed out to really give them much thought. Once my EE was out of the way, I proceeded to panic about college applications, realizing that my top choice school’s early action deadline was less than three weeks away and I had no essay, no letters of recommendation, nothing. Lucky for me, I actually enjoyed writing their essay prompts. However, when it came to the Common App essay, my creativity levels went from double rainbow to reject scratch paper.
The downward spiral continued as I looked over other school’s prompts, all similar but just different enough that I couldn’t get away with recycling one essay. One particular application was so tedious that it made me question if it was even worth applying since I knew I probably wouldn’t end up there. Fatigued by having to manually fill in my entire high school transcript class by class, quarter by quarter, (because sending them an official transcript would be so messy) by the time I got to the honors program part of the application, I was ready to call it quits.
But, determined not to be beaten by a silly application, I decided to take on their additional honors essay. The prompt entailed something bland, like, “Why would you be a good fit for the honors program?” The blank entry box for the essay was simply that: blank. No word count or word limit listed, just the generic prompt. I decided to use this as an opportunity to exact revenge and also have a bit of fun, so I ended up crafting a ridiculously elaborate, 1300-word essay. Pleased with my work, I tried pasting it into the submission box only to have a lovely message pop up informing me of a 500 word limit. At this point, I just wanted to through my computer out the window. Frustrated and massively disgruntled, I butchered my lovely essay down to a shadow of its former self. It lacked flow, spark, and pretty much everything the first essay had. I didn’t care–I just wanted to be done with that application.
Moral of the story: check word limits and character limits!
The Lemon: Every college applicant goes through the, “So I had this brilliant idea for one of my essays, but all of the other prompts are writer’s block inducing, and I am a victim! I know that they want me to be original and “me”, but my brain feels like a hollow shell” phase.
The Lemonade: Writer’s block happens to everyone. You’d be lying if you said you’ve never experienced it. I happen to have chronic writer’s block, spells of which are punctuated by late night inspiration. Also, because I did the IB program, I am all too familiar with long essays waiting until the last minute to be written. Among the IB cohort at my school, we swapped stories of submitting to turnitin.com with just seconds before the midnight deadline–these tales of living on the edge became badges of honor. Okay, so I jest a little. But over the last two years, I’ve come to collect a few tricks that generally help blast writer’s block to smithereens.
Get Your Jam On
If you’re stuck in a writing rut (what lovely alliteration there!), try playing music that you are very familiar with. I’ve found that when I play music I know really well, I tend to focus better. It almost becomes white noise, blocking out other household noises. During essay season last year, I routinely listened to film scores (Alexander Desplat and the like) on Pandora. Lyric-less music was most helpful when writing more cerebral papers. If I wasn’t in the mood for cinematic music, then I usually turned to my Florence & the Machine station; at one point, I went through a Louis Armstrong/Etta James phase. Listening to music while writing isn’t for everyone, but give it a shot and experiment with what works for you.
Have a Snack
Maybe your blood sugar is low! Go have a healthy and refreshing snack, like some fruit or veggies. Make sure you’re drinking a lot of water too; dehydration makes for an unhappy brain.
Take a Walk
When your eyes start to glaze over and your mouth subconsciously starts to hang open after hours of staring at a computer screen, it’s time to step away. Go for a walk. The light exercise will get the blood flowing again. You’d be surprised at how much better you feel once you get some fresh air. Walking or running or whatever brief bout of exercise you choose to do will take your mind off the problem. More often than not, when you return, inspiration will strike.
Step Away, Sleep On It
Sometimes the best thing you can do is just take a step back and return to your writing the next day. Forcing yourself to grind out word after painful word is not going to help; it just deepens the frustration. Talk it out with a friend. Sometimes my best ideas come after working through an essay with someone else. Use the people around you as resources and take inspiration from your surroundings.
Good luck with your essays, and may the prompts be ever in your favor!