College Essay Advice For Juniors: Put A Pin In It

I’ve never watched the movie BOLT. But I’ve heard it sounding from the back seat of the car on late-night rides home from the relatives’, I’ve sensed it pumping meekly through child-sized headphones on an airplane flight, and I’ve garnered snippets from a distance as my kids were having a TV-dinner-movie-night. It’s safe to say, I’ve had ample time to piece together the plot.

I was drawn to the character of The Agent, an insincere Hollywood slimeball who is supposed to protect Penny’s interests and instead denies her plea to take her dog Bolt home for the weekend so he can keep Bolt’s super-dog delusion intact. To put her off he says condescendingly, “Let’s do this—let’s put a pin in it. Boop! Pin in! Now, let that hang there a bit and then we’ll address it when we’ve thought things through a bit. Okaaay?”

Obviously, The Agent has no intention of revisiting anything with Penny. However I, who am most assuredly not a slimeball, will say this: It’s not bad advice when it comes to brainstorming a college essay.

Juniors, now is the time to start generating simple ideas to “stick a pin in” and hang on your bathroom mirror, jot down in a journal, write on sticky notes, record on your phone or text to yourself. It’s a lot easier to free your mind during the spring of junior year, than to wait for fall of senior year to start revving your imagination.

A good way to get started is to refer to a list of prompts. I am not an advocate of working with the common application this early on, but if you have a few colleges in mind, go check out their supplemental questions. Those usually provide interesting prompts to get the creative juices flowing. Prompts can come from anywhere around you or you can refer to the Internet for suggestions.

If that’s too nausea inducing, then simply noticing things around you that catch your attention. Start small and write down just a few words that come to mind. Perhaps something that you do routinely—what you eat for breakfast, how you get to school, a holiday meal, a private ritual, or a family tradition—will spark a chain of associations. Or, think of something you love or something you hate: an object, an idea, or an attitude. Recall a peak experience and describe elements in that moment that made it so exhilarating. Pick anything that comes to mind, any personal experience, no matter how ordinary to you, and jot down a few specific words. Be honest, detailed and brief (for now)—and then put a pin in it.

Another word for this brainstorming process is composting.* The brain is a mysterious and wonderful mull-er over-er. If you feed it some thoughts on the essay, it will do work behind the scenes, while you take your SAT’s, finish junior year, and enjoy your summer. But you have to feed it material, observations, actions, feelings, and fragments of things that catch your attention. Don’t worry what it will all mean—save that anxiety for later. For now, just start with something small. Get ideas onto paper—snippets, tidbits, bits of bits—you get the idea!

Why spoil the fun so early in the writing process? Just start composting. If you need a little help, come check out my spring workshops in Tarrytown – and I’ll get you started! Visit my website ( over the summer for information on an August College Essay Intensive.

Composting is a term coined by Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down The Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *