This is part 2 of the 5-part ACE Your Personal Statement email series. Parts 2 and 3 are focused on Creating Your Draft. This article is about story structure.
The Epic and The Episodic
While a personal statement is a piece of creative writing, outlining your story is an important step toward a successful essay. Having a strong outline ensures a narrative structure that acts as a beacon to follow throughout the drafting and editing process. There is not necessarily a correct structure, but there are a couple classics that both allow for flexibility and promote cohesiveness.
The epic structure is one of the most enduring in history. It has been used in everything from Homer's Odyssey to films like Star Wars and The Matrix. Commonly referred to as "The Hero's Journey", it is a great way to structure your personal statement. If you have one primary character strength or core value you want to highlight through one continuous narrative, this is the way to go. You can and should weave in additional character strengths and values along the way, but the defining characteristic of the Hero's Journey Structure is that the events are linked by causality.
In contrast, the events in an episodic structure are linked thematically. We refer to this as the "Curated Stories Structure." Often used in short story collections like James Joyce's Dubliners or TV shows like "Law and Order", this is also an excellent way to structure your personal statement. If you want to tell multiple stories that highlight one primary character strength or core value this is the right choice. Don't worry, you will weave more in along the way here as well.
Let's explore the stages of The Hero's Journey. This structure can be broken down into 5 parts:
Status Quo: The main character in the story —in all college essays that should be You!—is living his or her normal life. There is often an issue or problem.
Inciting Incident: Something happens that forces the issue and causes the hero to need to act. Essentially, you are called to adventure. The hero may be hesitant or excited at first.
Mounting Challenges: The action progresses and the hero continues to act as additional challenges and formative experiences present themselves, often building up to a major decision and action.
Denouement / Insight: While there are key learnings along the way, there is often an overarching theme of the development of particular character strengths and values. This is where the hero reflects on the action.
New Normal: What the hero does differently with their new knowledge in their life now, and what he or she will do in the future.
Check Point: Is your outline aligned with the prompt you chose? If it is, proceed with writing your first draft. If not, try to identify the issue and consider either changing the outline or selecting a different prompt more aligned with your developing story.
Regardless, watch out for perfectionism at this stage in the writing process. As Anne Lamott, author of the great writing book Bird by Bird says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”
There will be time to revise and polish your essay, but first you have to get something down on paper (or up on the screen).
Ready to write your personal statement with Peter and I as your coach? Good news, the next cohort of Write Your Way Into College starts in July.
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