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?
When you look down at a college application and see you have a half-dozen essays to fill out, it’s very easy to think “I’ll just do this essay today, those in a week, and those I can do quickly so I’ll wait until I sent my app out.”
Here’s the problem–you’re not seeing your essays the right way. Rather than having six individual essays, it’s better to think of them as six chapters in one big story that you are submitting to the universities for reading consumption.
This means that if the story you are pitching is “young girl who overcame a broken leg and medical issues to get straight A’s and succeed in soccer” then it doesn’t make a ton of sense to have one essay devoted to your favorite European destination. Similarly, if your story is “boy who overcame emotional anxiety to become a strong actor,” it probably won’t fit in to talk about any athletic accomplishments you had.
The reason essays exist on your applications is not solely so the admissions committee can see how well you write (though that is certainly part of it). It exists in part so that the school knows who you are. I’ve already emphasized before how GPAs and test scores can blur together, but memorable stories stand out. The only way–the only way–to tell a story like this is through your essays.
But if you’re telling several divergent, incongruent stories, the power gets lost.
So remember: tell one big story, not several smaller stories.
I recently had a client that had an essay question, “If you could have a contemporary guest speaker come to the university, who would it be and why?” This is a very similar question to another essay prompt, “If you could have dinner with one person in history, who would it be and way?”
Without fail, I could tell you the five most common answers to both of these questions, and I guarantee you probably nearly half of the applicants will list those options (politician, religious figure, sports star, music star, or entrepreneur of the day–just cut and paste and you’ll get your answer). Thus, it didn’t surprise me too greatly when the client said “Elon Musk” as his answer.
Naturally, I wrote to him and explained my concern that while Elon Musk would certainly make for a compelling speaker and the university would undoubtedly sell out its tickets, it didn’t make for a great presentation. 80 percent of the planet wants to hear Elon Musk speak, and in over 95 percent of those essay questions, the reason would invariably revolve around “his creativity,” “his vision,” “his work ethic,” or something else.
When he called me back, though, he brought up an interesting point that not many people do–Elon Musk not only runs two different companies right now (a car manufacturer and a space shuttle producer), he came from a third different type of company (PayPal, or a finance company). Because this client wanted to double-dip in both business and medicine, he explained that he wanted to learn how Musk managed to lead companies of such disparate differences.
This specific reason was something I had never heard before. But what made me even more sure of something was when he mentioned an obscure (in America, at least) physician in Germany who started as a surgeon but eventually became a massive investor worth billions of dollars. I had never heard of this surgeon before, but I could see specifically how this person would make for great dinner conversation with my client.
And that’s when I realized a point that I’ve known for some time but had never been able to say so succinctly specificity sells.
It’s All In the Details
Whether you’re writing a creative essay like this, a report about your favorite city in Europe, or a dissertation for graduate school, one rule has always risen above the rest–the specific details are the difference between a boring paper and a great one.
Why? Just imagine someone told you about their favorite vacation and it was in Berlin. You ask them what they liked about it. “I dunno, it was just cool being in a foreign country and seeing new cultures and stuff.” Sure, that’s informative, but it’s boring and doesn’t tell you anything. That quote could be applied to literally any foreign country in the world–there’s nothing to differentiate Germany from everything else based on those words.
Conversely, imagine they had said, “I got to see the Berlin Wall and many of the streets and architecture that became famous from early 20th century photos. I got to experience German museums explaining the Holocaust and other historical events, and I got to try German beer with a German couple from Munich. They explained the difference between Munich and Berlin.”
Now that is interesting! You have a clear picture of what happened, you get details that clearly set it apart from other countries, and it even provides a taste of something most people don’t get on their trips–beers with locals.
You have to think along the same lines of your essay. “I was someone who enjoyed acting in musicals, and the most significant one was when I did Fiddler on the Roof,” only tells us what your favorite one was. “When I stood on stage, performing for my grandparents for the first time, and belted out the word ‘Tradition’ in my baritone voice, I got shivers thinking about what this production of Fiddler on the Roof meant to them,” implies a much stronger story (albeit with a sentence that should probably be split into two).
Specificity sells. Sell yourself to the admissions committee and get into your dream school.
Want to know how to be specific on your personal statement? Find out everything you need to know here.
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A common refrain I hear from clients is “I’m worried about this because I’m not a good writer,” in large part based on their English essay grades. While I understand what this is saying, this is equivalent to saying, “I’m not a good athlete.” It implies something, but for the sake of the discussion, it’s not specific enough. A basketball athlete? A tennis athlete? A baseball athlete?
Thus, when I get that question, I in turn typically ask my clients, “what kind of writing have you done?” For 90 percent of high school students, the answers will revolve around class essays for English, history, and a few other subjects. Occasionally, you’ll get the student who has worked for the school newspaper or writes a blog that actually gets traffic, but those students wouldn’t be saying “I’m not a good writer.”
The reason I ask this is simple–your college essay is NOT an English essay.
You will need to follow certain rules such as proper grammar, good flow, and compelling content, but this is not a literary analysis or a historical thesis paper. This is your story. This is your life, come to being on the page. This is creative writing, but it’s not really creating something so much as it is bearing the most compelling part of you that already exists.
So no, you don’t need to be a good English essay writer to write a good personal statement. You don’t need to have gotten an A on all of your research papers to feel confident about your application essays. You just need your most compelling story, a willingness to do a few drafts, and a willingness to tell the truth of your story in full.
The personal statement is usually open-ended, 500 to 650 words, and has very few other guidelines to tell your story. With all this freedom, you have the chance to write something magical.
The flip side, of course, is that with this freedom comes the burden of too many options. What do I write about? How should I write about it? Is this an appropriate topic? Is this topic too boring? Too general? Too cliche? What if I’m a terrible writer?
Here’s the funny thing about these essays. As discussed before, you don’t need to be a great writer to tell a great story. So even if you think you aren’t a great writer, don’t let that give you cause to panic. This is not an AP English essay. This is your chance to tell a story.
But what if you’re still uncertain about doing that?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself that can generate some ideas:
What moments fundamentally changed you or the path you were on over the last decade?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing this has to be a Hollywood-type moment where you hit the game-winning three-pointer, nailed the audition that got you a role at a professional theater, or witnessed the death of someone close. If you had such a moment, then great! But if not, don’t despair. It’s about what’s fundamental to you being able to tell your story, not what would make a great film moment.
What moments trigger strong, almost overwhelming emotions?
The way to great writing is to write the raw truth. This is an absolute whether you’re writing an essay, an online column, a confessional, or even fiction. The more vulnerable the writing, the more painfully true, the better it is.
Oftentimes, this kind of writing will revolve around a failure you experienced that you overcame. Writing about truly exhilarating moments is fun, but not many people learn from them—they just indulge in them. The darkest, saddest, most frustrating moments are the ones we most often learn from and most often make compelling.
What moments represent the core of who you are?
If you know yourself well, you know there are certain traits that you value above all others. Be it kindness, empathy, leadership, determination, anything—if you can bring it to life in a story, it can make for a great personal statement.
There are, however, some topics that you do NOT want to talk about when you tell your story. Stay tuned next week to find out what those are.
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