How to Write the Personal Essay
As a former English major, I’ve always enjoyed writing but understand it’s not everyone’s favorite pasttime. The good news is that this isn’t your standard English essay. The bad news is that you’ve got only 650 words to tell your unique personal story. We all have one. What’s yours? The 2015-2016 Common Application folks just released the new prompts. New language appears in italics:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
What makes a student competitive are their grades, course rigor and standardized testing. What makes a student compelling are their interests – what they do outside the classroom – as well as their essays. If you are competitie, an essay can be the difference between an admit and deny decision. So what do college admissions officers want to know?
- Who is this person?
- Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?
- Can this person write?
How to start? My favorite resource for brainstorming is a process introduced by The College Essay Guy called the Objects and Values exercises: http://www.collegeessayguy.com/main-statement. These two exercises are where I start with my students. Once you nail down your essense objects and values that are most important, you are ready to find your unique story that highlights those things that are most important to you. Once you’ve figured out the angle you want to take, the next step is getting it down on paper. With my students, I encourage a stream of consciousness exercise where they just brainstorm the different elements that could fit into the essay. Working together, we identify the most compelling parts of the story to craft the essay. How to craft the essay? This is where my other favorite resource comes into play. If you don’t have a copy of Janine Robinson’s Escape from Essay Hell http://www.essayhell.com/, I highly recommend you purchase one. It’s a quick read and more importantly, is the best guide I’ve found for students who aren’t natural writers…. Last piece of advice: have fun with the essay and let your unique voice shine throughout. There is only one you!