From Staring to Starting: Overcoming Writer’s Block for Your College Essays

The personal statement and various supplemental college essays are some of the most difficult pieces of writing you will likely ever be confronted with in your life. With the stakes so high, the need for profundity under such word count and time limit constraints can be suffocating. However, you will find that once you get over the initial hump and get a first draft on paper, things will flow much more easily from there. Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done. Our college admissions experts are here to help you every step of the way. But before resorting to outside help, try giving it a shot on your own.

The first thing to realize is that you’re not alone. Not only is every other college applicant in the world struggling in the same way you are, but also almost every single professional writer in history has experienced this kind of writer’s block or is experiencing it at this very moment. For me, the process of staring at a blank document for hours until the ideas somehow magically flowed onto the page was such a common occurrence throughout high school, college, and law school that I began to think it was unavoidable. And, to some extent, I was right.

Since then, having worked with students on thousands of college essays and helping them overcome this common stumbling block, I have realized that this “staring until your eyes can’t take it any more” process is more about procrastination than about creative process. Of course, brainstorming and outlining are important, but they are both very active processes. The trouble with college essays is that you can write about literally anything in your life that you find significant. Thus, you need a way to ignite your creative pilot light. But how?

Ask yourself questions. Dozens of them. And then write down lengthy answers to each of them. This will help you engage in an active self-reflection about your experiences in life. At the top of the page, you should have two objectives highlighted: Organization and Impressiveness. These objectives are both equally important because you want to write something that showcases your positive attributes that will make you an asset to a college’s incoming class while doing so in a cogent and concise way. Keep these goals in mind when you’re answering the questions you’ve written for yourself to keep you on track.

So, what kind of questions should you ask yourself? First, you should start with the Common Application prompts and see if you can sketch out an outline to any of them:

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

If any good ideas come to mind, make sure to get them down on the page in some loose fashion right away. You can flesh out details later. Next, you should start to write your list of questions. They should look something like this:

1. What is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life?

2. What has been my proudest accomplishment?

3. When have I felt weakest in my life?

4. What three experiences would I say made me who I am today?

5. What experiences have I had that most closely parallel what I think college will be like and how did I react to them?

6. What is the most thrilling discovery I have ever made?

7. When have I prevailed against naysayers or against all odds?

8. What is the most meaningful relationship in my life?

9. What is my most meaningful possession?

10. What makes me different from my peers?

11. How do people around me perceive me? How do I perceive myself?

12. If I had to write the title of my autobiography, what would it say?

Free Bonus: Download a free ebook that will show you how to quickly execute this same strategy for building your resume.

These questions might seem ridiculous to be answering about yourself, but they are exactly what you might need to help get the creative juices flowing. Fill out this list with questions about yourself until you reach 25 questions. Then, begin answering them.

The next step will be outlining your essay so that you can achieve that critical goal of organization. Stay tuned on the InGenius Blog for our next post about organizing your thoughts after a huge brain dump like this one…


About the Author

David Mainiero, Co-Founder and Director of Operations of InGenius Prep, is an experienced educator and academic and admissions counselor with over almost a decade of experience helping students unlock their potential and achieve their dreams. Having founded and run multiple and small businesses, David has a strong entrepreneurial track record.

He graduated from Dartmouth College Summa Cum Laude with Highest Honors in History with a focus on Nationalism in the Near East and was inducted as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Several years later, he earned a JD from Harvard Law School. To this day, he believes that the most important moments in his own education were learning with his peers during his time as a Policy Debater in high school and college.

David knows firsthand what success looks like and how to achieve it; his passion to help students discover their own passions and realize their fullest potential motivates him to travel all around the world to share his visions for educational access.