When you hear the word “college application essay” or “personal statement essay,” one crucial word in those phrases may make you believe you have to be a great writer: “essay.”
Hearing the word essay likely invokes memories of reports about themes in The Count of Monte Cristo, a historical analysis about the implication of the 1812 War, or a case study in a psychology class. All of these require strong, technical writing skills, and if you struggled in English or hated learning about the Oxford comma, there’s a great chance that hearing that may make you groan.
But there’s something crucial to know about when it comes to these essays that can make your life much, much easier.
It’s not about your writing. It’s about your story.
Necessary, Not Sufficient
To write a great story, it is necessary to have writing without grammatical errors, incorrect verbiage, or glaringly bad typos. This is true whether you’re writing fiction, a thesis paper, or a blog post. If this blog post used apostrophes incorrectly or misspelled words, it would stand out rather egregiously.
But that just sets the floor for your writing, it doesn’t actually raise it to the level you want it to.
When the admissions committee reads your story, they want to do so without getting pulled out of the story by the aforementioned mistakes. But simply avoiding these mistakes won’t make for a great essay–it’ll merely ensure that you meet the necessary requirements to avoid having a bad one.
It’s the Story
Name your favorite movie. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, Captain America: Civil War–those are just a few for me.
Name your favorite books. The Coldfire Trilogy, American Gods, The Name of the Wind, Game of Thrones–those are also just a few.
What do all of these have in common, regardless of their medium? They’re great stories.
Explaining why these are great stories goes beyond the point of this post, but the universal acclaim they have, the repeated viewing/reading nature of these stories, and the way they have invaded modern culture says everything about the quality of those stories.
And do they have great writing? Well, some of them, yes. The Avenger films are notorious for having great humor in them, and no one would ever call Neil Gaiman or George RR Martin a bad writer.
But do you know who has been called a bad writer? Stephen King and James Patterson. Two of the greatest selling authors of the last 50 years have received critiques for poor writing quality. You can find similar, harsher criticisms for E.L. James, author of the 50 Shades series.
So if their writing is mediocre, why do they sell like fresh ice cream on a weekend in July?
Because their stories are too compelling not too read.
It’s Your Story
Everyone has a story to tell. Just because you haven’t traveled to an exotic country, won an Olympic medal, met a president, or won a national award doesn’t mean you don’t have a story to tell. My story–specifically, the one I wrote for my college applications–involved growing up and taking ownership of my life after an embarrassing story at the gym.
Another person’s story talked about overcoming their alcoholism. Another talked about starting a business off of rare shoes. Another talked about using statistics to improve their defense in high school basketball.
Some of these had great writing. Some of them had writing that was good enough.
But all of them told a story that made you want to read more, to learn more about what’s going on. Their stories sucked you in and didn’t let you go until the final period.
That is what college application essays are looking for. They are not looking for technically strong writing that makes a reader go “oh, man, their handle on metaphors is perfect.” They are not looking for an essay that you would submit to your English teacher.
They are looking for your story. What is your unique, compelling story? How do you stand out?
Those are questions for another day–but for now, just take solace in one simple fact.
You don’t have to be a great writer to write a great college application essay. You just need to have a great story.
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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.
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The following is a personal statement example that I have worked on. Identifying information has been changed. My thoughts are written in bold after some paragraphs.
As a child, I would look to the heavens and see the billions of stars, seemingly clustered together. When people said they hoped to become a star someday, I understood. The metaphor of the star defined my life.
(This opening sets the tone for the rest of the essay. “The metaphor of the star defined my life” is something that will play out over the course of this essay. With your opener, it is crucial to immediately grab the reader’s attention while giving some indication of what is to come throughout the essay.)
But until about two years ago, it defined it for a very different reason. Instead of glowing brightly through the night, illuminating the world and providing sustaining energy for those around me, I felt isolated, drifting through space with no goal in mind.
(One of my favorite styles of opening is to write a sentence or two in which a metaphor or a situation seems normal… and then twist it and go in the opposite direction. While this opener might sound depressing, as long as the essay ends on a positive note [which it does], then we can start in a dark place, perhaps literally.)
I started as a nebula, unrefined and needing outside forces to put me together. At such an early age, I know it takes many forces to bring this field into a defined star. But when most stars form, they don’t have planets. They don’t have any companions.
For the first ten years of my education, like the stars without any companions, I drifted through school and life, not caring about my performance. If I got a poor grade in school, what did it matter? If I did not show passion for anything, it’s not like it affected anyone. I didn’t take any notes in class. I pulled my hair to pass the time. I watched television when I came home, but I never gravitated toward any show—I just watched whatever occupied the time slots of 4 p.m. to about 7 p.m.
(I would’ve preferred some specificity here in terms of what poor grades they got or what shows they watched, but the client wanted to keep the physics language more than include specifics here, which is fine. It’s a tricky maneuver, but because of how nicely it works, it’s permissible.)
It’s not that I wanted to remain like this. I kept waiting for something to change my life for the better. But for all of the hand-wringing I did, that hand-wringing never turned into action. In short, I just hoped a stray planet would float into my orbit, giving me a reason to shine.
Although stars go on until they run out of hydrogen in their core and turn into a red giant regardless of their surroundings, by sophomore year, because of my surroundings, my core began to feel depleted. I didn’t see how things would change.
Then I got my report card home for the end of ninth grade.
(Short, one-sentence paragraphs might be considered anathema in high school essays, but in essays like this personal statement example here, they are critical. They keep the reader flowing smoothly through the essay, draw attention to the single line, and have a nice way of grabbing back the attention of the reader if it has shifted for whatever reason.)
Up to that point, I had gotten grades not good enough to feel pride but not bad enough to feel shame. But when I looked at my transcript, I felt genuine embarrassment. I failed French and had several other grades that barely qualified as passing. I felt sick and ashamed of myself.
I went home to find my parents waiting for me, having seen my grades. They had the only reaction worse than fiery anger: resigned disappointment.
I had never seen them so unsettled in my life. They couldn’t even muster outrage at what I had slid into. They just sighed and said that they thought I would do better. My emotions mirrored theirs. But for everything that happened in that moment, my parents didn’t reignite my core.
What lit the fire within me was seeing my younger siblings looking at me intensely. They had a mixture of sadness and confusion on their face—wasn’t I the shining star of the family?
(The narrative shift this essay takes on, describing the feeling the student feels with his parents and siblings, is what helps the essay properly shift from “I wasn’t good before” to “I reached my potential.” As a rule, the more anecdotal and narrative you can be, the better, because it helps enforce one of the rules of writing: show, don’t tell.)
Suddenly, I realized I wasn’t the lone star sailing through the cosmos, removed from any other celestial bodies by millions of miles. I had multiple “planets” that I shined on for, and I needed to start acting that way.
Starting that summer, I didn’t wait for the big moment. I made several moments happen. I pursued my true passion, physics and astronomy, with an insatiable hunger. I read articles and watched videos on quantum mechanics and even dabbled in trying to figure out my own theories. I examined at the current research in theoretical physics and astronomy, specifically what came before the creation of the universe and what will come after. I had revitalized my core.
Now, when I think of stars, I don’t think of myself as a lone source of luminosity in the night. I think of me as our Sun, providing light and guidance for my siblings.
(I’m a big believer that closing paragraphs should always revolve around the introduction to bring it full circle. Recall is a nice tool that creatives use in their works, and it’s something you can use too.)
(Overall Thoughts: This was one of the more unique essays I worked on, because the client wanted to focus as much on the language of physics as they did on what they’d done. The important thing to remember, though, is that while a good writing style is important, it only works if you have strong content to back it up. In an ideal world, your writing and your content is superb, but if you can only choose one, go with great content. In this case, the content of going home after ninth grade is what allows this essay to shine. It’s a moment of true growth, and they show what they did after to succeed. I would’ve probably ditched the physics language for some more specificity, but as far as what one can do with words, this is a great personal statement example of creativity.)
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