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There’s an article on TeachingChannel.org all about “Writing to Learn.” Give it a read if you’ve got a few minutes — it’s got some good stuff! It’s directed towards teachers, but here, I’ll talk a bit about how, exactly, this relates to students and their writing, particularly in this season of college applications.

The point of the article is that low-stakes writing is a great way to get your thoughts out, to figure things out for yourself. Low-stakes writing is writing that no one else is going to see. It’s not going to matter if you don’t write well in low-stakes writing, because no one’s going to look at it but you. As a result, you can just…write. You don’t have to be eloquent, you don’t have to be brilliant. You can instead focus on getting your ideas on paper, so you can sort them out later.

Low-stakes writing is a great way to start your work on any essay you’d write, for school or for college applications. When you first put fingers to keyboard, don’t worry about quality. Just write whatever comes to mind concerning the essay topic. Write whatever you think of. Don’t analyze. Don’t go back and edit anything, not yet. Just get a whole bunch of words on the screen. After you’ve filled at least a couple pages with just writing, then you can go back and read what you’ve written. It’s often helpful if you can leave some time in between writing and reading, and it’s a good idea to read what you’ve written out-loud — hearing it can help you figure out which parts you like most.

Then, after you’ve read through it again, you can come back to the computer and take another crack at writing. If you still don’t feel quite ready to move on to writing the real thing, do another round of low-stakes preparatory writing. Get your ideas smoothed out. Figure out what you want to say.

Following all the techniques in the article, warm-up exercises, writing to actively listen, writing about reflections, is a good idea. But even if you don’t do any of those, simply doing low-stakes writing before diving into the heavier stuff is a great way to ease into the water. It might seem like more work, but in the end, this technique will probably save you some time. Give it a whirl next time you’re writing your college application essay!