The college essay and a plate of pasta

Feeling stuck or intimidated by that essay needed for your college application? That stops now. 

Let’s keep it simple. Consider, for a moment, a really good plate of pasta—three or four ingredients cooked in a noble, pure and unaffected way. Is there anything more satisfying, more genuine? That’s what you want in your college essay. A simple, pure, genuine plate of honest goodness. 

The Pasta: This is your story. Fresh or dried, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s a quality story, a great little slice-of-life story that speaks volumes as to who you are, what you want, and where you’re going. 

Some tips. First, mundane things make better stories than the fabulous or the heroic. They are more human, too, which helps you forge an emotional bond to your reader. 

Next, problems make great stories. Who doesn’t love a juicy problem? It provides a platform for a dramatic narrative, a lesson learned and even possibly a surprising outcome. 

Third tip: stories need a beginning, middle and end. The beginning sets the scene, the action and the issue involved. The middle addresses your intellectual experience with it. What is core about this story that speaks to who you are, how you think and how you will embrace this next chapter of your education? The end wraps it up, ideally coming full circle, which leaves your reader feeling satisfied. 

Finally, your story needs to be about something. What’s your take-away? Weeks from now, what will the reader remember about your essay?

The Water: You want to cook this pasta, right? So start with fresh water and bring it to a vigorous boil, which in the world of essays translates into an unruly pile of notes. These are much easier to come by than a first draft and will serve you well on your way to a polished piece. Words, phrases, concepts . . . it all counts. In that pile, look for an opening line. I bet it’s there. A successful opening line is measured by one thing only: does your reader want to know more? If so, you’re cooking. 

Start stirring: Organize your thoughts and then start writing. Don’t fuss at this point; just get it on the page. Write as if no one is going to read it. Write with glorious abandon. Then test your story, as you would a strand of pasta. Is the concept good? Can you state it in a sentence? Does your opening resonate? Is it done yet? Probably not. All writing is rewriting. Plan on several drafts. How do you know when you’re done? Here’s the test: Edit until there’s nothing to add or take away. 

Sauce: Please, nothing canned or artificial. Let’s use the real deal: local, vine-ripened tomatoes, skinned, seeded and lovingly reduced with a pinch of salt into that delicious, sweet sauce we all crave. Pure, genuine. This is the language of your draft, the sound, the taste. 

By now, you have the concept, the structure, and it’s on a plate: competent, good looking. Time to dress it. Look at your descriptions, analogies, metaphors—are they precise? Interesting? Look at your sentence structure—is it varied, with a nice flow? 

Cheese: Here’s your last step, which can make all the difference. Read it backwards, line by line. It won’t make sense, but every line will stand out so you can clearly see it. Does it contribute to your narrative? Is it worth the space on the page? 

Show the essay to a few trusted souls, let some hours or days go by, and ask: What was my essay about? If you don’t hear a close match to what you intended, you had best go at it again. 

Use a good cheese, now, and a hand grater and garnish your work. Give it that little extra something that ties it all together—a sharpened point of view maybe, or a great one-liner. You’re in charge here—your voice, your tone and your facts, all lined up in a one-sided story of your choosing. What could be more delicious, more enticing?  

If you need help, be in touch, and let’s get this done.