The cursor on the screen blinks mockingly at the writer as he agonizes over how to answer essay prompts from the Common Application, such as: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story;” or “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

The college essay is the bane of every high school junior starting the college process this time of year. Anyone who has been around teenagers knows this is a struggle due to the simple fact they are currently wired to live in the here and now — thank you, frontal lobe brain development! Students often resort to searching the internet for the “winning college essay,” hoping to find inspiration.

They are desperate to find the “right words” to express who they are in hopes of impressing the admission counselor who is reviewing their college applications. In their earnest quest to find resources to help tell their story, so many students lose sight of their goal — telling the reader about who they innately are. By seeking out winning essays, they have gone from telling their own individual story to retelling someone else’s.

Colleges and universities across the nation review millions of essays, and they are the first to admit they have seen it all. So if a student is just one out of a million applications, how does he (or she) deliver his story in order to become one-in-a-million instead? The key is to start writing the essay early (easier said than done, especially when you don’t think your story is unique enough to tell)!

In Harrisburg Academy’s spring college prep class for juniors, I could start this laborious process by having the students write weekly essays on a multitude of topics about themselves, such as “Tell me about your favorite book,” or “What global issues concern you,” but that wouldn’t answer the question of “What makes you, you?”

Instead, I subject the students to a live presentation inspired by Ignite Talks. I want the students to “enlighten us, but make it quick,” which is the Ignite motto. It’s a difficult assignment to complete with a seven-day turn around. They can only use 20 PowerPoint slides that must automatically advance every 15 seconds. Did I mention there is no music or animation allowed? And the slides must be visual cues for their words and not the words themselves? The topic is the student.

It’s a high-pressure situation, but it gets them thinking about who they are intrinsically. What matters the most to them? Who matters the most to them? What events have shaped their lives? Where do they see themselves in two to five years? In five minutes, they get to the heart of who they are, and the writing process truly begins. Those 300 seconds turn into a 650-word college essay delivered in their own voice.

It’s an unconventional approach to the writing process, but it sure beats hearing the agonizing words, “I don’t know what to write!”

Learn more about Harrisburg Academy on our school website.