College Essay Writing Tips

By Alaine Cohen

“Mom, I don’t like this game…”

This was the distress signal I found awaiting me when I checked my phone at lunchtime. It was the last message in a long string of texts from Alira, my despairing daughter who had spent that Friday morning spiraling into a college-essay meltdown. A couple of weeks earlier, I had offered to lead her through the college essay-writing process that I use with my Fusion students, but she was repulsed at the suggestion. Hadn’t she just won first place in the Huntington Youth Writes essay competition? Wasn’t she going to be a Creative Writing major in college? How could she ever hope to become a professional writer, if she needed her mother to help her write about herself? I accepted this rebuff with as much humility as I could muster, realizing that I was foolish to have thought my willful teen would welcome an offer of help from anyone – especially Mom.

The Stress of the Essay

When I arrived home that evening, I put the kettle on the stove to boil, retrieved two bags of chamomile tea from the pantry, and sat down at the kitchen table next to my dejected first-born. A few deep breaths and several sips of tea later, she finally seemed ready to listen to me. I told her that the truth is – no matter how talented a writer one may be – the stress of the college application process can be paralyzing. Time and time again, I have watched as the minds of even my most gifted students become clogged with anxiety and self-doubt under the pressure of having to compose the perfect college essay. 

Get Un-Blocked

I love helping my students dissolve those maddening mental blocks. Guiding them along the path of self-discovery to claim the power and beauty of their truths is one of the most rewarding things I do as a Fusion English teacher, and the key to unlocking each student’s writing potential lies within the foundational relationship-building that happens in the one-to-one classroom. By cultivating this personal connection, I am weaving an emotional safety net that emboldens my students to take the kinds of creative risks which spark true magic. Together, we jump into the murk of their uncertainty, fighting past layers of accumulated doubts and “shoulds,” to shine a light on their unique voice.

Reimagine the Task

During our first session, I open the door for the student to radically re-imagine the possibilities of what a college essay could be. As we read the writing prompts together, I initiate an open-hearted dialogue, sharing whatever comes to mind from my own life and then inviting the student to relate to it. The ensuing exchange leads them into deeper and deeper levels of self-reflection until they eventually reach that transcendent space where conversation becomes storytelling, and the free-writing phase of the process can now begin. I remind them that “free” means setting aside all the rules, empowering them to allow their unfettered story to flow and evolve with the roll of the pen. If new ideas emerge mid-sentence, I urge them to follow the commands of their unconscious, honoring inspiration above all else.

The creative mind is messy and magnificent, and I reassure my students that, just as they do, the greatest authors struggle mightily with their craft. So, when I ask them to read their free-writes aloud to me, only to respond by questioning them further and sending them forth on the freshly illuminated path of another free-write…and when I maybe even repeat this cycle again (and again)…I am grateful for the gifts that come with the art of teaching through relationship. Without them, my dubious students might not be so willing to trust me when I ask for their patience, promising that their most profound and rewarding expressions of self are indeed in the process of percolating to the surface.

Discovering Their Truth

One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from James Dickey, who said: “I work on the process of refining low-grade ore. I get maybe a couple of nuggets of gold out of fifty tons of dirt. It is tough for me. No, I am not inspired.” Knowing that this is as true for a Poet Laureate as it is for me has sustained me through countless moments of self-doubt, and I often share his comforting words with my students when their tolerance for the writing process wears thin. And those glimmering gold nuggets always do appear. Sometimes quickly – most times slowly – my young college-essay writers unfailingly make their way to the stories they are meant to tell.

Jonathan discovers his truth in an unexpectedly emotional response to the opera Rigoletto.

Erin comes upon her truth in the walks she takes with her father, as they escape the chaos of a house under reconstruction.

Carrie finds her truth in the experience of adopting her dog Johann from the rescue shelter.

Alec extracts his truth from the lines of a poem which his relentless teacher insisted he write about the mantis shrimp.

And yes, Alira did eventually find her truth, too. It was hiding beneath the layers of resentment she felt toward the special education paraprofessionals who hovered over her from fifth through eighth grade – the vexing, loving motivators who drove her to become a fiercely independent, brilliantly inspired miner of gold.

About the Author

English Teacher/Mentor

Fusion Academy Long Island

Alaine Cohen is an English Teacher/Mentor at Fusion Academy Long Island, and also is Fusion’s National English Department Head.

Alaine earned her Master’s degree in English Literature from The State University of New York at Albany, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude. Her Master’s Thesis on The Benefits of Personal Writing as a Teaching Tool in the High School Classroom was nominated by SUNYA’s graduate English Department for Outstanding Thesis. Although Alaine began her college career as an art major, she discovered her talent and passion for teaching thanks to her classmates, who constantly sought her out for support writing their essays. Through them, she quickly realized that her calling was to be an educator.

Alaine had the rewarding experience of teaching for 16 years in the very upstate New York high school where her grandmother had also taught English. When her family relocated to Long Island in 2012, she discovered the newly-opened Fusion in her job search and was blown away to have found an educational institution with a mission that so closely matches her own. As an avowed Empathic Teacher, working in a school whose foremost goal is to nurture compassion and tolerance in their students has been no less than a dream come true. As English Department Head, Alaine relishes her role as peer mentor and instructional coach; so, when the opportunity to become National English Department Head came her way in the Fall of 2019, she eagerly accepted the new position.

Beyond teaching, Alaine has a rich creative life. She has been singing alongside her accomplished guitar-player husband for more than two decades, belting out an eclectic mix of rock, blues, soul, and jazz in local clubs (and, of course, at Fusion Open Mic events). She also loves to draw and write poetry. Her remarkable teenage daughters Alira and Eden are both gifted musicians, artists, and writers in their own rights. Along with her husband Rob and their beloved border collie mix Thorin, Alaine’s beautiful girls provide her with endless inspiration.