Welcome to the 5-part ACE Your Personal Statement series. We'll start with an article about Accumulating Content. This article is about capturing ideas and preparing to write.
Earnest Hemingway once said, "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." Like him, most students face the tyranny of the blank page (or screen) when beginning their personal statement. It's true that choosing a topic that aligns with your overarching application strategy is a difficult step, but starting to write doesn't need to be as painful as Hemingway implies.
To be successful, you need to understand that writing a compelling essay is a process. This is worth repeating: writing a compelling essay is a process. So don't let yourself get paralyzed by wanting to have the perfect topic nailed down before beginning to write. Here's what to do instead:
Get Started Early
This process takes time, and the earlier you start, the better off you will be. It often takes longer than you think to explore ideas fully and then write multiple drafts that may veer in new directions. Since the Common Application essay prompts rarely change much, that shouldn’t hold you up.
Don’t forget you may have dozens of school-specific supplemental essays to complete. While it can be compressed, writing all your college essays can be a 9-10 month project.
Analyze the Prompts
The Common App essay prompts are vague to give you flexibility and encourage creativity. Unlike essays for an English class, the most important aspect of your personal statement is you. Whichever prompt you choose, admission officers want you to tell a story that reveals your character, personality, and how you think.
School-specific supplemental essay prompts can often be more pointed. The three most common supplemental essay prompts ask you to write about your most meaningful extracurricular activity, why you want to attend a particular college, and what you want to major in.
Use Your Character Strengths and Core Values
One of the best ways to brainstorm your personal statement topic is by asking yourself, "What are the character strengths or core values I want to highlight in your application?" The goal is for your essay to illustrate their development by showing you both in action and in reflection.
After narrowing down your potential topics (try to get 3-4), free-write at least two paragraphs for each. One example of you demonstrating the character strength or core value when you were younger and one example that is more recent. This is the goldmine.
Deconstruct an Example
While reading too many examples of finished essays can be detrimental to your writing process, try to deconstruct at least one. Begin by analyzing what character strengths and core values the author is highlighting throughout their story.
When choosing your own topic, consider which of your character strengths or core values may not be communicated in other parts of your application. Start there. And remember, while you want your essay to make an impact, the best stories are often built on seemingly ordinary experiences like shopping at Costco or making a cheesecake.
The key is to ask yourself, “will this experience provide a vehicle for demonstrating the development of my character strengths and core values?” If yes, leave any fear of making a mistake behind. You can always come back.
Thanks for Reading!
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 April.
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