Threes video game trailer

What Does Threes Have to Do with the College Application Essay?

Threes is the game you see above. A relative of Threes is another tile-sliding game called 2048. I learned about 2048 when one of my sisters texted me that I should check it out.

At first, I thought she was being nice because she knows I like puzzles if they are not too hard. After an obsessive week of sporadically ignoring wife and children, I was less sure. Maybe she was mad at me? Eventually, I prevailed (read: got the 2048 tile before my sister did). And the fact that there are Youtube videos of people winning the game in minutes takes nothing away from my hard-fought victory, in case you were wondering.

After suffering the torment of 2048, I enjoyed coming across this Wired article about Threes' game design. The creative process of developing Threes isn't that different from the creative process of writing a college application essay. The more we know what to expect, the easier it is to start writing. In this post, I'll share three tips I learned from the Threes story.

College Application Essay Tip #1: Greatness is something you grind out.

The Threes article suggests that the central mechanic of the game is so simple and satisfying that we might think it was "discovered" rather than "invented." Then it goes on to explain that is not the case. The game mechanic appeared only after months of work.

I have students tell me all the time that they haven't been working on their essays because they "just don't feel inspired." That is when I tell them to get over it. Lack of inspiration is an excuse, not a real problem. As the article points out, "The fact is, the simple magic of Threes came not from a lightning bolt of inspiration but rather a slow, steady grind."

This sentiment calls to mind my dad singing his favorite line from Mary Poppins to us when we were kids. It's from Bert, the chimney sweep: "You've got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone." I don't know the rest, and I doubt my dad does either, but that hasn't mattered yet.

Sure, you need a quantum of inspiration. That is, you need an inkling of what makes a good topic. But beyond that, it's about sitting down every day for 20 minutes and grinding out 250 words.

College Application Essay Tip #2: It starts ugly.

The article describes the initial draft of the game as "an ugly, bare-bones affair." And when my students send me early drafts, they usually offer some sort of apology about how it's not that good. Of course it's ugly. It's not done!

Come to terms with this. Writing an essay is like being that grizzled old guy on the beach with the headphones and the metal detector. Most of what he picks up is garbage, but once in a while he finds a gold locket (do people still wear those?).

Most of what you write will be garbage, but once in a while you'll find a gem of insight. And this is OK. You're not going to show colleges the garbage. You're going to show them the polished insight.

College Application Essay Tip #3: Kill the beloved monsters.

When we see Threes now, we see a simple number-sliding game. But earlier on, this game had monsters. Lots of monsters. And how did the creators feel when they ditched the monsters for numbers? About how you'd expect: “We spent so much time on the monster. When we took it out, it just hurt.”

It hurts to spends time on something that doesn't work out. But when you're writing your essay, this is what will happen. You will agonize over a word, a sentence, or a paragraph until it is so clever and so deep. You will lean back in your chair, put hands behind your head, exhale with gusto and puffed-out cheeks, and marvel at your amazingness. Then you will realize your beautiful words don't fit with your essay's theme.

This is where I argue with some students. I want them to let go so their essay can survive. One thing I did not learn from business school, having never attended, is that rational actors ignore sunk costs. The fact that you already spent a lot of time on something shouldn't factor into whether you should keep spending time on it.

Some students are unwilling to abandon their treasured words. They remind me of that crazy lady Indiana Jones kept urging to let go of the Grail so she could save herself. The students that learn to release their favorites tend to develop better stories.

Summing Up the Creative Process

If I had to sum everything up about the creative process, I would say it like this: it's painful. But knowing that in advance makes it slightly less so.

Good luck writing!


P.S. Since you're going to procrastinate no matter what I say, please, go ahead and play Threes in your browser.

Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.