In Part 1 of this series we looked at what makes for a good structure for a college essay. More specifically, we discussed that it won’t look like your typical high school expository essay. Even the most well structured college essay is ineffective without an idea to work with when molding your statement.
However, merely nestling down into a cozy armchair and staring at the blank “Document 1” in Microsoft Word won’t likely spark any ideas. Oftentimes even the world’s most prolific writers are afflicted with the dreaded writers’ block. So, how do you come up with great, original ideas for your college essay?
A few weeks ago on TED Radio Hour (a weekly show that airs on National Public Radio) the theme was “What Is Original?” The show explored questions of where good ideas come from and how they are ‘remixed’ across music, technology, and other fields. Ultimately, the most thought-stimulating notion in the show was that perhaps there’s no such thing as an original idea.
We are almost always changing, breaking down, and improving upon the ideas that have preceded us. Even inventions that seem revolutionary and completely new at the time of their launch actually stand upon the shoulders of past inventions.
The iPhone changed the way the world uses technology, but most of the components (camera, GPS, touchscreen) existed beforehand. Apple brought them together to create an aesthetically and technologically groundbreaking product. Besides the fascinating legal implications related to patents, it also holds an important key to unlocking our creative potential:
To become a great writer, read great writing.
You should never copy something you’ve read into your own writing—that’s plagiarism. However, you should try to soak up as many great pieces of writing that you can. In doing so, you’ll expand your vocabulary and writing style. When talking and reading, we tend to use words and phrases that we are comfortable with and have heard or seen many times before. By reading the works of the world’s renowned wordsmiths (e.g. Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Joseph Heller, or Christopher Hitchens), you’ll become familiar with words you’d never hear otherwise, and more relevantly, learn different ways to tell a story.
Furthermore, you’ll get a sense of how creative writers develop characters, including how to appropriately use narrative arcs, tension building, setting description, and humor. There’s no need to stop there. Try picking up a newspaper, listening to radio journalism, or even reading a screenplay. As you surround yourself with these materials, write down any ideas that come to you about your own experiences.
To be continued… Happy Writing!
Michael Rothberg is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor. He began tutoring his freshman year of college and is excited to help students conquer the SAT by unlocking their academic potential. Currently a rising sophomore at Harvard University, he is a Cognitive Neuroscience and Evolutionary Psychology major and Staff Reporter at the Harvard Crimson.