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3 Steps to Tackling Your Personal Essay

Posted by on Friday, October 10, 2014 in Application Process, The College Essay.

(Photo: Vanderbilt Creative Services)

Writer’s block. If you have never experienced this phenomenon, you will likely have your first encounter as you begin to compose your personal statement for college. For many of us, to write about one’s self is unusually awkward and can seem painful. In this post, I give you some food for thought in the form of three tips to help you compose a statement that is uniquely you.

Start writing. About anything. When I present information sessions for prospective students, I offer myself up as topic of choice: write about my lame jokes and how your parents are eating them up. I am not remotely afraid that I’ll ever read an essay about me. (Why? See my next point.)  A cure for writer’s block may be to just write about anything to get the creative juices flowing again. For a moment, remove all barriers and formalities: punctuation, word limit, topic, etc. Your task is to re-create the moment you are writing about and get it on paper.

Revise like a madman or madwoman. But, don’t immediately revise. Let it simmer overnight (at least). Give your mind a break. This allows you to come back to your writing with a clear mind and fresh set of eyes. You may come back and ask yourself “what was I thinking?” or even better, “what was I trying to say?” These responses are great indications that you need to clarify your thoughts. And that’s ok! In fact, you will be rewording, rephrasing, adding thoughts, removing unnecessary details to the point that your essay looks nothing like your first draft. (The essay you started about me and my lame jokes has morphed into an essay about your college trip to Vanderbilt, or your relationship with your parents, or something else entirely. I am glad that I no longer make a cameo in your essay.)

Seek out an outsider’s perspective. This is the most difficult tip I provide. In my career in admissions, often I have noticed how some students struggle to communicate their feelings on paper. A personal statement is insight into who you are. As an admissions officer, I am helping the admissions committee craft a first-year community. Sure, I learn about you through your letters of recommendation, but I always look forward to hearing what you have to say for yourself. I don’t care so much about what you write about. Seasoned admissions officers know what a mission trip is, what it feels like to tear your ACL, or even how awesome grandma is (because all grandmas are awesome!). What I am trying to learn about is you. You are an interesting individual – the way you see the world, the style in which you describe it – this all makes for a diverse community on campus. The challenge here is that you have to communicate this to someone who does not know you.  To aid you with this challenge, solicit a trusted friend, buddy, mentor, or teacher to help you communicate you on paper.

I was lucky in my senior year of high school, I had an English teacher who took it upon herself to help me craft my own writing style and voice.  On paper, she said my writing just didn’t sound like me. Draft after draft, revision after revision, I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.  At one point, she shared with me a perspective that changed my perspective on writing: I didn’t need to sound like a thesaurus or dictionary to sound smart and be respected. I could just be me. Mrs. Bonneville has since passed, but I will never forget her for what she did for me – she encouraged me to share my perspective and helped me find my style and manner. Whether or not you have a teacher like Mrs. Bonneville in your life, you can still learn from her advice to me:  Be yourself in your writing so that the reader can truly understand what makes you, you.  Sometimes all it takes is someone else who knows you to see what value you bring to a community and prod you to showcase that value through your own voice.

As you begin or continue to write for college, remember that your personal essay is your best opportunity to put your personality into your application. While there are many other pieces we are considering in your application, the personal essay is truly the only piece where you have complete control over what you say and how you say it. You have to start somewhere, so just start writing, revise like crazy, and get an outside opinion so that your essay can show us who you really are.

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    February 10th, 2015

    You were lucky that you got a teacher who understood your problem. But all students are not lucky. You have done a great work by providing these helpful techniques. One can create a cool essay-assist after reading this post by you.