The Hidden Value of Writing a Bad First Draft of Your College Admission Essay

By: Caroline Koppelman

Every great piece of writing has to start somewhere. You can be sure that The Great Gatsby wasn’t one of the greatest books of all time when it was solely a first draft. Even the most well respected authors go through various drafts before finishing their pieces. The art of writing is based on revision. Hemingway had to write and rewrite before he was happy with his work. It took him 39 rewrites to get the last page of A Farewell to Arms to sound the way he wanted it to. If they can do it, so can you.

When writing your college essay, you should view your first draft as a building block. It’s commonly said that the first idea for your essay is not your best idea, which means that your first drafts will most likely not be submitted. We recommend that you write and explore each of your ideas. The writing experience will help later on once you’ve finalized your topic. 

When conquering the college essay you want to go about it in a multi-step process. It’s not like your in-class writing pieces from high school. You can’t just work on it for an allotted amount of time and then never revisit it. In fact, the college essay improves with time—each edit allows you to bring new perspective and ideas to your narrative. 

Starting your essay is the hardest part, but once you get into the writing aspect, words and ideas should start flowing. If you find yourself repeatedly struggling with writer’s block or realizing that you don’t have a lot to say, then pick a new topic. You want to decide on a prompt that allows you to weave an intricate story. You don’t want to be fighting to create ideas. The piece should come naturally since it’s about you.

Even if you doubt your ideas for your topic, you should start writing about some of them. It’s more likely for you to develop a stronger idea during the writing process than when you’re waiting around trying to think of one. No matter if your first draft is written in stream of consciousness or includes a bulleted list, it will still be helpful.

You should understand that the first draft isn’t meant to be perfect. It’s called a first draft for a reason. It’s your chance to get all of your ideas out and start roughly shaping what your final essay would look like. If you think about the first draft in comparison to a drawing, then this is the sketch—a rough image of what the final piece will look like. The first draft is experimental, you can feel free to explore many ideas and writing styles. Your college essay will likely need at least five drafts. This means that the improvement from draft one to the final draft should be substantial. 

When approaching the college essay, you should follow these 10 steps:

  1. Brainstorm or outline ideas for the first draft (make sure you write these down)
  2. Write your first draft
  3. Revise the draft for it’s second draft form
  4. Create a hook that will draw the reader in (it must connect to your idea)
  5. Work on a third draft that connects your hook to your body paragraphs
  6. Give the piece a break and then revisit it to edit with a new perspective 
  7. Create a conclusion that ties your piece together
  8. Edit the 4th draft
  9. Revisit your work to make edits with a refined eye
  10. Final edit of final draft

In the end, your goal is to make the admissions committee feel as if they really know you and want you to be a part of their school. In order to do so, you have to approach your first draft like it is a drawing board. Think of it as the platform to write about any ideas you want to include. Don’t fear the fact that you will have to work on your essay in multiple sittings because writing is meant to be revised. Like any great work of art, you should continuously build upon your first draft until you’ve created a masterpiece.