Writing A College Application Essay: 18 Tips to Avoid Blank Page Syndrome

BPS, often called writer’s block, is among the most common obstacles students face when applying to college. 

Even students with the best intentions, with effective systems in place, often fall into a state of analysis paralysis and wind up staring at a blank page.

Students often state that they feel they have nothing to say or, sometimes, too much to say.

Students often tell us they are not “good” writers.

Others are intimidated into a state of complete numbness because they know someone will read what they write and judge whether they are admitted to that college.

Overcoming blank page syndrome can be challenging.

Here are 18 tips from the writing specialists at College Bound Advising that will help your child overcome their BPS and start writing their college essays:

1. Set a routine

Establish a regular writing routine. Writing at the same time and in the same place each day can create a habit, making it easier to get started. However, sometimes, a change of scenery can spark creativity. If stuck, try writing in a different room, at a café, or outside.

2. Close the computer, pick up a pen

Studies have shown that there are many benefits to putting away our devices and writing pen to paper. Writing with a pen helps facilitate a more free-flowing and creative thought process. Eliminating digital distractions from electronic devices allows for more focused brainstorming and development of ideas.

3. Start with a prompt

Use writing prompts to kickstart creativity. Prompts can be specific or more general, but both will help get words flowing. Download a list of our favorites here.

4. Jot down major themes/values/characteristics 

Create a list of values, beliefs, and characteristics important for the reader to know about you. After writing a first draft, ask, “Does this draft incorporate all or some of these?” If yes, try to figure out how to expand on them; if no, see where more details can be added.

5. Free write

Set a timer for 10-15 minutes and write non-stop. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or coherence. Don’t edit or stop to think ‒ just write. Free writing often helps to avoid any internal criticism and helps to get ideas flowing.

6. Set small goals

Set achievable writing goals. Instead of aiming to write the entire essay, aim for a single paragraph, a specific word count, or, at the beginning of the process, even something as simple as saying: “Today, I will free write for 20 minutes.”

7. Walk for creativity

Walking is not only good for our physical health but also increases our creativity. A recent study at Stanford University found that a person’s creative output increases by 60% when walking. So, grab a pair of sneakers and something to record your thoughts while taking in the outside smells, sounds, and sights. Voice texting your thoughts as you walk will help ensure you don’t forget them when you get home to write. 

8. Talk it out

Discuss ideas with a friend, parent, teacher, or essay coach. Talking about our writing can help clarify our thoughts and provide new perspectives. Our signature Office Hours are a great place to talk it out.

9. Eliminate distractions

Create a focused writing environment by eliminating distractions. Turn off notifications, use website blockers, and find a quiet space to write. However, some people find the quiet distracting; for those who need background noise, make sure the noise does not become distracting. If it does, a walk around the block may help bring back the focus.

10. Accept imperfection

Accept that a first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. The goal is to get words on the page. When we give ourselves enough time, we can rewrite drafts many times before submitting them.

11. Write out of order. Start in the middle!

When stuck on one part of the personal statement or type of essay, skip it and write a different section or move to a college’s supplemental essay. When starting, don’t worry about having the perfect opening. An opening line is often buried somewhere in the middle.

12. Visualize a scene, person, or event 

A mental picture of the person, scene, or idea can help make ideas more concrete and easier to write down. Therefore, before writing, try to visualize scenes, characters, or the essay’s main points. 

13. Doodle, paint, draw, create a collage 

Drawing, sketching, and even doodling have been shown to increase one’s focus and boost comprehension.  An article in Inc. magazine highlights, “Research in neuroscience, psychology, and design has recently demonstrated that people who doodle are often better at grasping new concepts and staying focused, using the page and the pen as a means of refining creative ideas. More recently, authors Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross show how activities, from painting and dancing to expressive writing, architecture, and more, are essential to our lives in their book Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us

14. Set a timer

Use time management strategies such as the Pomodoro Technique: write for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. Repeat this cycle to maintain focus and prevent burnout.

15. Use a “Ritual and Reward” system

Develop a pre-writing ritual that signals the brain it’s time to write. Rituals could include using the same notebook and pencil, listening to a “pump-up song.” or going for a walk around the block (see #7) before a writing session. And don’t forget to build in rewards. Rewarding ourselves for each achievement (I wrote a paragraph, finished a free write, or wrote my “Why do I want to go to College X” essay are great micro tasks to celebrate) keeps us motivated to do more.

16. Seek feedback

Share work with trusted friends, family members, or writing groups. Remember, your draft does not need to be finished work; constructive feedback at any stage can provide motivation and new insights.

17. Reframe your mindset

Instead of viewing the blank page as a challenge, see it as an opportunity to explore and create something new. This shift in perspective can reduce anxiety and open up creative energy.

18. Read for inspiration

Reading can inspire us, provide ideas on structure and style, or simply give us a quiet break.

Through trial and error and testing these strategies, students will find what works best for them and gradually overcome blank page syndrome. 

Remember, the key is to keep writing and not let the fear of imperfection stop us from getting started.

Happy Writing!

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