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.
Sometimes, no matter how vulnerable you want to be, there are taboo topics that just shouldn’t get brought up in your essay. While it’s important to show your most compelling side, there are a few topics that, even if you believe they are compelling, probably aren’t worth including.
Don’t politicize your essay
This is different than talking about politics. If you firmly believe your experience campaigning for a candidate or leading a political club over the past few years is important to you, that’s fine. What you don’t want to do is use your 500-650 words to defend (insert politician here). This is true regardless of party affiliation. No one wants to read about why you think (politician) is the greatest person since Jesus and no one cares about how you believe (politician)’s policies will make your country better. Keep the focus on you, your experience, and your learning experiences. It’s your story, not (politician)’s story.
Don’t brag about anything illegal or ethically questionable.
This is a little different than what most people say. Some will tell you never talk about illegal activity. I wouldn’t talk about the vehicle you stole or the credit card fraud you committed, but if you show repentance and how you’ve grown, it can work with carefully chosen words. This does not mean you should talk about crimes from your past. But if you consider them essential to your story and you’ve outgrown those moments, you can write about them—just tread carefully.
Don’t talk about your love life.
Other than that, I don’t really have any rules for content. Common sense will help you a lot, but don’t be afraid to get personal and show vulnerability. That’s the difference between mediocre content and compelling content.
Just don’t get so vulnerable that taboo topics come up, or your reader will never get past your choice of topic.
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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