Pessimism vs. Problem-Solving in Your College Essays

"My essay needs to be better."

Students say versions of this sentence to me all the time. They’ve read lots of successful college essays, and they see a gap between their own work and what they hope to achieve. They don’t know how to bridge the gap, and they feel paralyzed.

What’s going on here?

Usually, the problem is that the student’s concerns are too vague. “My essay doesn’t feel good enough” is a general expression of dissatisfaction, not a specific diagnosis of a writing problem.

Writing takes place word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. If you read a jarring phrase, you can ask meaningful questions about what’s gone wrong. Are there grammar problems? Is the language hackneyed or unclear? Does this idea follow naturally from what I wrote in the previous sentence?

Zeroing in on the problem is way more than half the battle. If it helps, you can read other writers’ work for inspiration and ideas, but you don’t need to. All you need is to focus on the bit of thought or language you’re trying to improve. Be hyper-precise here: exactly what is the problem? And what would it take to solve it?

If you look at your whole essay all at once, however - from the proverbial 30,000 feet - it's difficult to locate problems. Instead, you tend to drift, calling to mind other, better essays and saying, “I wish mine were more like that.” This kind of anxiety doesn’t help. It leads to complaining and pessimism, not creativity and problem-solving.

The next time you look at your writing and feel a giant shrug inside, try not to fret (and try not to judge yourself). Instead, ask yourself precisely where these feelings are coming from. Which parts of your essay make you feel this way? Why do they make you feel this way? Keep digging until you’ve articulated the problem so clearly that you could explain it to a stranger on the street. And then start experimenting with solutions :)

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