Feature image from e-novel-advisor.com 


The Struggle
The cursor in Microsoft word blinked. Again and again. I stared at the screen. The screen stared right back at me. Blank.

I opened up YouTube and listened to “concentration productivity music”. Perhaps the sound of “binaural beats” and “alpha waves” designed to enhance brain power would stimulate my essay-writing ability. Instead, as I tried to concentrate on the stubbornly blank document in front of me, I began to daydream and dozed off.

Energy drinks didn’t work. Endorphins from spontaneous exercise sessions didn’t work either. Binge watching Dance Moms also didn’t work (though I wasn’t exactly banking on that).

The problem wasn’t that I had no idea what to write. It was because I had too much I wanted to stuff into the unyielding 650-word count that I agonized over the essay. Every word had to be carefully thought out, painstakingly selected in order to ensure perfection.


How I felt when I looked at the stubbornly blank screen (gradstudentsuccess.com)

How I felt when I looked at the stubbornly blank screen (gradstudentsuccess.com)

Writer’s block is not a novel feeling. It’s what every single senior experiences during the college application process. All our lives we are told that college is the end all be all, the finish line to these past years of hard work. Our self-worth, our dignity, our very value as human beings seem to be at stake, and we are all under an unbelievable amount of pressure. How can we possibly transfer our entire being into 650 words in a way that convinces the admissions committee to accept us?

So how did I battle this invisible enemy that breeds fear, panic, and misery? How did I valiantly persevere and survive to this day? What should current and future applicants do to get through this phase? Pay close attention and you’ll find out, young grasshoppers.

Go back to the beginning
It’s always fun to go through your own Facebook to see what shenanigans you were up to last year, or the year before. I wanted to write my essay about my growth in personal character and leadership through leading the school band as drum major. Thankfully, my drum major coach always takes tons of photos and videos at all the band reviews, parades, and concerts and remembers to tag me in them.

I found a picture from November of my freshman year, when the coaches held a clinic for aspiring drum majors. I looked nervous, but awed by the sheer presence of the mace in my hands. Back then, just the concept of a drum major, who conducts the band and spins the mace in the front during performances, seemed like a fantasy.

My first time holding a mace in freshman year (Harrison Cheng)

My first time holding a mace in freshman year (Harrison Cheng)

I was 4’10’’, a shy little girl who hated being the center of attention, who had to summon up all the courage that existed within herself just to talk to teachers. Yet I wanted to audition for a position that would require leading 250 boisterous teenagers with loud instruments and have the pressure of spinning and tossing the mace in front of hundreds of people in competition.

Up until that point, I thought it was because I wanted to challenge myself, to put myself out there and have no regrets later on. Looking at that photo though, I remembered the events that transpired at the clinic. A girl in my year who also wanted to audition, who was very bold and outspoken, gave me this sidelong look. As if she had no idea why I thought I had the right to show interest in the position. One of my closest friends then, with whom I had a bumpy relationship, even indignantly asked me, “Who do you think you are?!”

Obviously, there are no hard feelings now, because back then we were all pretty immature. But as I looked at the photo I realized that a large part of why I wanted to audition was to prove my doubters wrong. I was tired of having people look down at me because of my height, or my introverted-ness. I wanted to show them all that I was much more than I was given credit for.

Me leading a parade as drum major my senior year (Harrison Cheng)

Me leading a parade as drum major my senior year (Harrison Cheng)

Brilliant, I remember thinking. And that was how I defeated writer’s block for my Common App essay.

Learn from others
It is common for friends to share essays and offer to give feedback on each other’s work. During lunchtimes, my friends and I would complain loudly about the prompts, about the applications, about the upcoming deadlines. It was stress-relieving and fun at the same time, and during the application season almost every lunchtime was dedicated to sharing our struggles or news relating to apps.

We would all have our laptops out, each editing another’s essay. It was great to hear the comments my friends had about my supplements, and it was also enjoyable to read about their stories. Best of all, it was comforting to know that I wasn’t the only one who struggled to get my thoughts on paper. Sometimes the critiques were useful, and sometimes I didn’t agree with them. I learned to take the suggestions into stride, and ultimately use my own judgment as the final call. After all, it is my essay.

Internet browsing also turned out to be surprisingly helpful. There are tons of past essays on the internet that you can read. I read as many as possible and after doing so, reflected on what I liked and didn’t like. There were some that seemed outrageous — covering topics that I would never dare to write under my name. However, often times it is the most risky essays that turn out to be the most successful. After reading many, many samples online, I became more willing to try out more creative and risky approaches.

What it feels like when you find a loophole (twinnetworks.com)

What it feels like when you find a loophole (twinnetworks.com)

Note: there are some websites that only allow you to read a limited number before having to “pay” for “membership” to get “full access”. If that’s the case, go incognito on Google Chrome and boom, you’re golden. If they block it again after the first few reads, close your incognito window and then open another one. Technology is very useful.

Friends, you can do this! Remember that just like the APUSH report you procrastinated on for days and days, just like those wretched practice tests you had to slave through for the SAT, just like that end of the semester AP Chem lab report you won’t want to write, you will end up finishing it. And it will be in the past. Soon enough, college applications will be just a distant memory that you look fondly upon while frolicking in the meadows of college debt.


Sara Tsai

Sara is part of the Class of 2020 at UC Berkeley, intending to double major in Business Administration and Interdisciplinary Studies. As a graduate of Mission San Jose High School in Fremont, CA, she is well-accustomed to the boba scene in the Bay Area, and her favorite toppings include pandan noodles, red tapioca, and lychee jelly. In high school, she was the 4'10'' "tiny but mighty" drum major of the marching band and best known for her penguin drawings.