College Essay, Personal Essay, Memoir Practice (Part 2)

Our workshop group is not meeting this week, so last week I suggested our writers start a 650-word college essay. This essay will serve as practice for the upcoming Memoir Writing workshop being offered at Bixby Library. There is still time to sign up! Just email me.


If you’ve been having trouble picking a topic for your college essay, try listing answers to any of the following questions. You could answer with a single word, a phrase, or you might let the words flow and end up with an essay. Write answers until you can’t think of anything else or until you come up with an answer that you feel drawn to. Each item on these lists could be possible sparks for future writing, too.

  • What do you fear?
  • What fears you?
  • What do you keep secret?
  • What did you think you understood as a child but have since realized you were wrong about?
  • What embarrasses you?
  • What does your name mean to you?
  • What was the best mean you ever ate?
  • What was your favorite car that you drove?
  • What have you forgotten?


How will you write an essay that demonstrates your unique offerings with humility? How will you balance your unique quirks and shortcomings with insight and powerful writing?

Combine the specific, concrete detail that bring a story alive with honesty about what you learned or did not learn, and reflect on how this experience reveals universal human truths. The last step is particularly important. What has your unique, subjective experience revealed about what it means to be human? We are all unique subjects, and that is part of what gives each of us an authentic writing voice.


If you’ve read these college essays, you’ll probably see some patterns emerge. Most exemplary essays go through five steps. If you haven’t noticed these steps, I’ll break down basic structure:

  1. Start in action
  2. Give some context and backstory
  3. Analyze
  4. Show growth
  5. Close by creating a sense of returning to the beginning

It seems easy enough to say. Worry about this order once you’ve done a draft, and you’ve started tackling the the next step. The step that you should consider to be 80% of the work of writing: revision.


Revision (revision is more than proofreading!) is how a shitty first draft becomes good writing. Don’t expect great writing on your first attempt. Forgive yourself your shitty first attempts. Figure out what you want to accomplish, what is working, what is not working and improve the draft.

Reordering points, revelations, and details can be a good step in revision. Rewriting whole passages might be necessary. Starting over from scratch and comparing the two attempts. Truly look at your draft with new eyes and improve it.

Good luck! I can’t wait to see what you come up with!