Memoir Practice: College Essay

Last night’s meeting of the Bixby Library’s writing workshop was the culmination of our chapbook adventure. I was impressed with the effort people put into their book construction and with their selections. Use the comments below to share with the group what you learned or thought about as you were selecting and ordering the pieces of your chapbook. I’m looking forward to seeing what tidbits you share here.


We will not be meeting as a group next week at the library. I will nevertheless still post with some resources to help you further along with the assignment at the usual time.


Remember when you were first learning to swim? Seeing the adults being able to jump into the deep end of a pool and emerge refreshed and excited may have left you feeling envious, wanting to go straight to the deep end, as it did me.

For writers, published work often belies the deep, lengthy work that goes into a project, and as such aspiring writers want to jump directly into the deep end with a novel or book-lenght project. Aspiring writers can take many paths to get to the same end. We all want to write good stories. The deep end, going for a novel, as when we tried Nanowrimo in November, can produce successful results. Embarking on a book length project can be overwhelming, though.  Another path might be to start with smaller pieces of story, to master their dynamics and then apply that mastery to longer forms.

Check out this retelling of one writer’s growth and patience. Your parents might prefer the swimming lessons with floaties before the deep end.


Starting April 6th, the Bixby Writers Program will offer and eight week course: Memoir Writing 101. In anticipation of that course of study, last night’s prompt is the floaties version of memoirs.

What is the short form of memoir? Personal essay comes close, and a very specific version of personal essay is what we will be trying out: the college essay.

Remember these? Every college application has some form of this essay. Sell yourself without losing humility, balance the polished veneer of good writing with the vulnerability and insight of the personal revelations of a teenager, all while remaining authentic and interesting. Simple enough to say.


The Common App, the ubiquitous application used by many schools to standardize the application process, will include 7 topics for the next cycle of applications. Five are worth noting:

  1. Describe your background, identity, an interest or a talent.
  2. Focus on an accomplishment
  3. Tell about a failure or a less learned
  4. Explain a problem you solved
  5. Recount when an idea of yours was challenged

The best choice depends on you and your unique qualities. What is it that makes you you? Choose a topic through which the qualities that make you special will shine out. Johns Hopkins has a collection of exemplary college essays and tips on writing them.


Let’s start the topic of how to write a personal essay with an example. This personal essay is about how to write a personal essay, so it’s nice and reflexive, and hilarious to boot.

Here is a list of five things to attempt while you write:

  1. Use what you know about good storytelling
  2. Combine your personal discoveries with universal “truths” that might apply to others
  3. Find YOUR voice (authenticity, for more thoughts on authenticity and imitation check out my recent post)
  4. Experiment, play, try something new
  5. Be specific, not general: write about one specific <fill in the blank>, not all <fill in the blank>s.

Let me wrap up with two reminders about the writing process. First, revision and editing are different. Once you have a draft, you engage in revision by looking at your writing again, considering your objectives and your effectiveness, and making major changes. Proofreading is editing. And second, reading and more reading is a great way to learn.


For next meeting (March 30th), write a college essay in response to one of the 5 Common App topics above in 650 words or less. Tune in next Thursday for the second round of advice.

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