Ask the Right Questions to Get Essay Ideas

Ask the Right Questions to Get Essay Ideas

Writing your personal statement is actually one of the easiest steps in the college application process.

The key word there, though, is “writing.” Generating the ideas, outline, and flow of the essay is much, much harder. As an example, I recently had a promising student who will likely wind up at a school like Dartmouth or Duke struggle for three weeks to come up with a topic. But as soon as we decided upon one, he had the essay written in less than a week.

There are numerous ways to come up with ideas. The best one, though, is to ask the right questions. Why? Because asking where you can focus yourself will naturally pull you to the appropriate subject for you to write about. Trying to come up with a topic without asking questions is like trying to hike from California to Minnesota without asking for directions. You can do it, but boy will life be much easier with the right questions.

Below are a list of some of the questions I send to all students interested in working with me–you may find inspiration yourself from some of these.

  • What moments fundamentally changed you or the path you were on over the last decade?
  • What moments in your past trigger strong, almost overwhelming emotions?
  • What moments represent the core of who you are?
  • What is your most notable failure?
  • What motivates you in your daily life?
  • How have you changed the most in the last five years? What catalyzed those changes?
  • How do you see yourself continuing to grow or change in the next few years?
  • Do you have any extenuating circumstances you want the admissions officers to be aware of?
How to Write a Personal Statement Tip #5: Seek Feedback

How to Write a Personal Statement Tip #5: Seek Feedback

You’ve done all the work you can on your essay. Now it’s time to seek feedback from someone else.

You Can’t Do It All

By now, you’ve written two drafts, you have a solid idea of what you want your essay to say, and you’ve gotten it to that point.

It’s precisely for that reason that you need someone else to provide feedback on your essay. If you like the way you structured a certain paragraph, there’s very little chance you’re going to realize it may not work unless five other people point out that it just doesn’t flow. Even if everyone you send it to likes your content, you’d be surprised how often people miss basic mistakes in their writing.

You can decide to just do it all yourself, but you’ll be missing a valuable, fresh set of eyes that can play a major role in helping you.

Who You Gonna Call?

In general, I’m not a huge fan of having family and friends handle this step due to their biases. You can give it to them for their thoughts, but don’t be surprised if their feedback doesn’t go much further than “I don’t know why, I just liked it.” While this can be useful to the extent that you know you haven’t messed everything up, it’s not valuable if you want more than just the most basic of feedback.

I recommend English teachers, tutors, or a professional editor to check your work at this point (like me—click here if you want to hire me.) Regardless of who you hire, the big thing here is that someone besides you can look at this essay with no prior involvement or judgment—that is as invaluable as just about anything else.

It’s Not You, It’s Them

One of the hardest things for writers to realize is that writing isn’t about what satisfies you, it’s what satisfies your audience. That sounds like a tricky notion, especially since so many essays want you to write about yourself. But you have to think about how you’re presenting yourself. Your audience is the admissions officer—they are deciding if you can attend your dream school or not. How do you come across to them? Do you sound humble and appreciative? Or do you sound demanding and pretentious?

It can feel great to write about your greatest high school accomplishment. But are you writing it because the experienced awes you, or because it makes you look so awesome? Having other people look at your essay can help you figure out how you come across. It will make you realize if you’re speaking to your audience properly or ignoring them and focusing on your own self-gratification.

In the end, you may get nothing but positive feedback from the people you give your essay to. And that’s great! But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have done it. Odds are very good that will not wind up being the case for you.

Send it to some friends, let them review it, and then incorporate their feedback into the essay.

Want to have a professional take such a look at your personal statement? Let me help you get into your dream school.

Want to know everything about writing a personal statement? Find out everything you need to know here.

How to Write a Personal Statement Tip #4: Do a Second Draft

How to Write a Personal Statement Tip #4: Do a Second Draft

If you’re not planning on doing a second draft on your essay, think again. Even the greatest writers of all time will have typos, awkward sentences, and poor word choice in their first drafts. As good of a writer as you may be–even if you’re the best writer in your high school–you’re a better second draft writer than a first draft writer.

Your second draft is your chance to refine what you want to say. In a limited word count, it can be easy to think you’re staying on topic but then realize what you wrote about doesn’t fit in the flow of your story. It’s easy to realize on your second go-around that what you thought was clear actually just sounds pretentious and jumbled. With (hopefully) a fresh set of eyes, you can rework certain sentences, make sure you have a cohesive narrative, and blend it all together.

How do you do this? To be frank, it’s hard to give specific advice because each first draft will need something different. Some drafts have remarkably good content but need fine-tuning on the specifics, while some will seem so plain they’ll need an overhaul.

In general, your gut will tell you the right answer. What’s your immediate reaction when you read your essay after having taken some time off? Is it “huh, this is pretty nice” or is it “oh man, this sucks”? Remember, your essay should elicit a strong emotional response. If it’s not, it may be time to start over or perform some surgery.

My first step would be to make sure the content works. Are you happy with it? Does it have enough detail? Does it elicit the response you were hoping for? All of these are questions you should be answering “yes” to. If not, fix it up.

Next, it’s time to check your grammar and spelling. If you’re good at this, you can do it yourself. I recommend printing it out or blowing up the font to something much larger than normal—this will force you to look at it from a different angle and you’ll be more likely to catch grammatical errors. However, nowadays, there are several useful online editing tools, including a couple that I use, that will catch many common mistakes for you. I recommend using either Hemingway, Grammarly, or WritingAide. Almost all of these will have a free version you can use or a relatively cheap paid version.

Regardless of how you do it, though, you should use as many different tools as possible. Just using Grammarly will help you some, but I’ve caught errors the app didn’t. Similarly, the printed paper may allow you to catch some errors, but if you don’t know what is and isn’t a grammatical error, a program will prove mighty useful for you.

Once you’ve done all of this, it’s time for the final step of the second draft, one that we’ll go over in the next edition of this series–hand it over to a friend.

Want to have a professional help your second draft of your personal statement? Let me help you get into your dream school.

Want to know everything about writing a personal statement? Find out everything you need to know here.

How to Write a Personal Statement Tip #3: Take Time Off After Your First Draft

How to Write a Personal Statement Tip #3: Take Time Off After Your First Draft

Stephen King likes to say that he takes a month off in between his drafts. I try and get at least a week off in between when I finish a draft and when I read a single word of it again. Some authors will go even longer. Some authors will go shorter, but all of them having one thing in common–they take time off in between their drafts. And you’ll want to do the same between your essay drafts.

Unless you’re incredibly proactive, you’re unlikely to be able to afford a month of time off in between drafts of your essay—but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a nugget of value from this information.

You Need a Break

So why does it matter to take time off? The biggest reasons are related but slightly different based on their perspectives.

From a mental perspective, you’re too close to the work to notice any changes. You know what you’ve written, you’ve thought about it so many times you think you’ve considered all the possibilities (you haven’t), and your mind hasn’t had the chance to decompress.

Psychologically, you may feel too attached to the essay. Even if you’re not, you know that this is your essay, representing you, and going to the schools to support your application. Time off will reduce that mental burden, and when you return to that essay, it will almost feel like someone else’s essay. This makes editing and cleaning it up a much easier and more successful task.

Even if you have nothing else to do (doubtful with schoolwork and extracurricular activities), a break between your first and second (and further) essay drafts will do you a lot of good.

How Long Do You Need Off?

I recommend taking at least a week off between when you finish your first draft and when you tackle it again.

Why? Because, again, in the moment, when you’re writing, you’re invested in it. You’re convinced your metaphor comparing volleyball to Sisyphus makes sense. You just know that calling your grandmother “perpetually inefficient with her memory” instead of “absentminded” makes sense. Writing, more than any other craft, is a field where content mistakes are not so obvious. If you miss a free throw in basketball, you know you don’t get a point. But writing can still “work” and not be of great quality.

A week off is just enough time to fill your brain with other tasks to make you “forget” about your essay. You’re not going to literally forget the essay, but you’ll forget certain parts of flow. You’ll forget how the metaphor fit in with the essay. You’ll forget that opening line. And that helps a lot.

Anything more than a week, to me, is unnecessary. It might be useful if you were writing a novel or a movie script, but the longest essay I’ve ever edited for an undergraduate application was about 800 words, which would barely be three pages double-spaced. You shouldn’t need more than a week to edit 300-800 words.

If you can’t afford a week, things become a little bit tougher, but you can still put this concept to good use. Take a couple of days off. If you can’t afford a couple of days, take a meal break or go for a run. If you just finished your first draft at 11:35 p.m. and the deadline is at 11:59 p.m., step away, do something quick—listen to your favorite song, do some push-ups, go play with the family dog—and run back in.

No Matter What, Don’t Think

The trick, no matter how much or little time you have, is to fill the space in between with something that will take your mind off the essay. This doesn’t have to be academic, by the way–and in fact, for me, it often isn’t. I will spend my week off doing other work, sure, but I’ll also play video games, workout, eat with friends, or just walk the dogs.

But what I’m not doing is sitting there reflecting on the work I’m supposed to be taking a break from. And you shouldn’t either. So when you take your break, whether one week or one hour, fill that gap with something. Sports, music, movies, friends, even a nap–anything but thinking about your essay.

Whatever you do, just make sure you at least have some degree of separation from your essay drafts when you go back.

Want to have a professional write a personal statement? Let me help you get into your dream school.

Want to know everything about writing a personal statement? Find out everything you need to know here.

How to Write a Personal Statement #2: Don’t Get It Right, Get It Down

How to Write a Personal Statement #2: Don’t Get It Right, Get It Down

I’ve seen so many writers, whether journalists, authors, or students, just stare at the blank screen, paralyzed with uncertainty as to what to write when it comes to writing a first draft. They want the perfect introduction, they want the memorable, often-quoted line, and the stunning, creative use of language.

I’m as guilty as anyone on this. Whether it’s with an essay for a client, a chapter for a fantasy novel, or even an opening line for a blog post, I can sit at that screen just trying to create the perfect product in my head.

But that’s terrible on a first draft. You can always fix what’s there, but you can’t edit a blank page. As long as you keep it in your head, you can’t fix it–because even if you have incredible mental organization, keeping anywhere up to 650 words organized in your head strains even the greatest of writers. You can’t rely on your mind–you need something physical to work with.

And that something is your first draft.

This is what I tell clients—when it comes to writing a first draft, once you’ve got an outline, it’s OK to take your time for maybe 5-10 minutes. But if, after that time, you still haven’t started writing, just write down anything that comes to mind. It honestly doesn’t matter how bad your first draft is (and I’ve written some woeful first drafts. I’ve misspelled to and too, I’ve put commas instead of periods, I’ve forgotten names–in short, you think of a mistake, I’ve done it).

Why? Because your first draft isn’t going to be what you submit to universities. (And if it is, don’t expect it to be a difference maker. Start earlier!)

Writing a first draft without the weight of expectations allows you to put your words to paper (or processor) and get your thoughts out of your head. You can take a sentence like “In high school, I ran cross country like the wind” and it can morph into so many directions. What kind of wind? How fast was the wind? You get the chance to actually see your thoughts expressed on a piece of paper, an underrated but highly valuable part of the writing process. You can see if what worked in your head works on the page, and if the structure, flow, and content you produced makes sense.

But when you have this:




You can’t edit anything, because there’s nothing there. And if you’ve got nothing there, it can boggle the mind how much could go there. There’s endless possibilities. Even for someone who has written for over a decade, with over 500 essays, multiple novels, and who knows how many blog posts, crafting a perfect first draft is all but impossible. I just write whatever comes to mind, as quickly as I can, and then I aim for a much better second and third draft.

Writing a first draft should be quick, almost mindless, and without concern for errors. It doesn’t matter how plain, lame, or boring it is. It’s just important to have it there. I would never get hired if people read my first drafts, but that’s OK. I fix them. (By the time you read this, this section will have had at least four rounds of writing and editing.)

The same goes for you. If your first draft is terrible, not only is that OK, it’s ideal. You got it out! The important thing is to see if there’s potential for a great second draft. If yes, have at it. If not, you now know what doesn’t work.

Want to have a professional write a personal statement? Let me help you get into your dream school.

Want to know everything about writing a personal statement? Find out everything you need to know here.

How to Write a Personal Statement Tip #1: Brain Dump Before You Write

How to Write a Personal Statement Tip #1: Brain Dump Before You Write

All of the questions I get as a college essay editor boil down to one simple question that seems simple but requires a different writing style than most are used to: how to write a personal statement well.

But before you even begin to write your personal statement, you have to know what your personal statement will cover. The nature of having an open-ended question like a personal statement grants for infinite possibilities–but also a strong likelihood of disorganization and a lack of focus without some forethought beforehand.

How can you know how to write a personal statement without planning for it? Having an idea in your head that you want to write about your favorite high school activity is great, but if you sit down without any inclination of where to go, it will leave you overwhelmed and frustrated. For example, imagine that you decide you want to write about your experiences spending a summer as a hospital volunteer. If you just start jabbing fingers onto the keyboard, you could wind up talking about the emotional impact, the leadership lessons, the physical squeamishness, the value of time commitment–all in the same essay! This would define “too much of a good thing.”

So you’ll want to put some thought into the essay before you start. But how? How do you know where to start when you don’t even know how or where to line up to start?

This is what I like to do. Take a blank page, either a literal blank page or a word document, and just start writing down ideas. There doesn’t need to be cohesion or organization yet. Some of my best novels started as scrappy, unedited, typo-ridden notes to myself on my phone. The point is to just write down everything that comes to mind—a brain dump of sorts. So looking above at the hospital example, write down all of those lessons learned, the moments of shock and value, and the experiences that stand out the most. If you want to write about your time on the tennis squad, just brain dump moments of raw emotion, triumph, friendships made, lessons learned, and moments you overcame failure.

What you brain dump doesn’t matter so much as the actual act of brain dumping. By the time you finish, you should have nothing left that you could consider a possible writing topic.

Once you feel like you’ve gotten everything out of your head, look at what you’ve written. Is there a cohesive way to organize this? Is there anything in particular in this brain dump that stands out? What details do you know you want included?

At this point, you have to take over as a student and decide what most captures your attention. In general, you already know the answer to this. When I thought about my time with sports, I immediately knew I wanted to write about the time I failed at weightlifting so bad I felt social humiliation. With others, maybe it’s about a death or severe tragedy or failure; maybe it’s a moment of absolute triumph; or maybe it’s a lesson learned that fundamentally changed you.

If you don’t know for sure, stay tuned: in a coming post, I will explain how you can pick out ways to come up with a solid essay topic after the brain dump. But for now, you’ve got your first step in how to write a personal statement effectively.

Want to have a professional write a personal statement? Let me help you get into your dream school.

Want to know everything about writing a personal statement? Find out everything you need to know here.