Here’s the deal: after reading thousands of essays over the last couple of years, I know you have it in you to write a strong, heartfelt, personal, personal essay. So, I’m sharing with you the exact steps I use with my own students to get them to dig down and find their amazing essay inside. It’s there. I promise.
Some quick background: I was a writing teacher for thirty years before I became a college admissions consultant, and for the last fifteen of those I taught freshman writing at Houston Community College. Much of that time was spent covering and teaching my personal favorite, the Personal Essay. For the last 5.5 years, I’ve been a private consultant, and when I’m not answering questions here or with my students, I’m reading posts on college admissions counselor pages, following tons of admissions offices and deans on Twitter, and going to conferences (and now nearly daily webinars).
Here’s what I know: Your idea about some kind of story you tell just isn’t that important. Often, the best essays I read come from the most mundane ideas. So many of you are focused on finding the magical idea that you’re letting the point of the essay escape you. There is no magic formula. There is no perfect idea. Because you have the focus of the essay right there. With you. It’s inside you because that’s what it is: you. I mean, we the readers, want to get to know the narrator version of your life, not the pretty scenery version where we only see what the character is doing. We need to know what’s happening inside your head, and most importantly, we need your values. We need your beliefs.
So, really, what’s the frickin point of the personal essay? Here’s how I see it and what I’ve learned over many years and lots of time investigating and sleuthing on multiple college admissions websites, years of college admissions conference attending, and lots of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook following. Despite what you think and what you’ve been told, I’ve come to believe (strongly!) that the point of the personal essay is not to STAND OUT, but to STICK WITH. You want the reader to fight for you in committee, and they will want to fight for you in committee if you build a connection with them. Quotes right here from u/DeanJfromUVA on Twitter: “I see so many students worrying about finding a unique college application easy that will ‘set them apart” right now. Application essay topics don’t have to be unique! I don’t mind if students write about something super popular, whether it’s an activity, academic interest, book, song… I just want them to give a little insight into who they are.”
How do you build that connection? You build a connection with your reader by building bridges instead of walls. Walls can be an extended metaphor that has gone too far, an essay that feels like it’s trying too hard, stilted formal language, thesaurus words (please don’t sound like you’ve swallowed a thesaurus — choking isn’t a good look), paragraphs that aren’t about inside you at all, but that are about another person, your ECs, or too much description. When I feel like someone is writing an essay that has been specifically written with the intent of impressing me, that builds a wall. Bridges let me in. Bridges are human connections. Bridges show vulnerability and problem-solving. Bridges aren’t afraid to show failure and learning from that failure. Think about the bridges and walls you have with your friends. What connects you with your friends with whom you have deeper relationships? What puts up a wall with your more shallow and surface friends?
How do you build the bridges? Let’s get to it! These are the exact steps I use with my students. It works. Time tested. Student tested.
STEP ONE: AVOID ACCEPTED ESSAYS LIKE HOT LAVA
If you fill your brain with “essays that work,” you get stuck inside your head about what a personal essay should look like. You can become limited in your idea of what a college essay is. Honestly, when I’m reading essays, the essays that I feel need the most work are from kids who have tried to emulate what they think an essay should be, so they get focused on the essay itself rather than sharing who they are and what’s important to them. And, moreover, you really don’t know if someone’s essay helped their app or they got into a school in spite of their essays.
Example: My daughter is an amazing writer, won tons of national and state awards for writing in high school. I never worried about or gave her college essays a second thought — not that it would have mattered if I did because she wouldn’t let me near her applications anyway, but that’s outside the point of this story. She was accepted to every school she applied to with the exception of Princeton, and she attended Harvard. I think we all just assumed her personal essay helped her with admissions because she wasn’t the strongest student in her school when it came to doing homework or daily assignments. But when she used the FERPA rule to review her application later during her sophomore year, she discovered that she’d been admitted the fact that they hated her essay. They called it “over-blown” “full of itself” and “way too self-important.” That’s just one example, but from many of the “essays that worked” that I’ve seen online, I’ve found a similar vein. So, you — or the writer of that essay have no idea if that essay actually helped or hurt them in admissions — even if they were admitted.
I go into more detail about this in the essay chapter in my book with the help of u/BlueLightSpcl (one of our amazing former mods) and his wise words. I’ve linked that chapter below in resources. Also, you can find words from u/Admissions_Daughter there. You might be able to find her advice archived here on Reddit somewhere too. She’s not active anymore bc she’s now in law school, but she has some awesome posts based on her years of college essay coaching — starting after she graduated and read her FERPA!
The only exceptions I’d consider to this step are reading essays on college essay guy’s website or from college admissions websites (like Tufts, for example) where they profile what they liked! And even then, I still don’t really advise it because I want you focused on your own thoughts and feelings and values, and I don’t want you to be stymied by what you think your essay should look like. If you’d like to read some from colleges and also read what admissions say about reading “essays that worked,” here’s a link.
STEP TWO: WRITE FOR FUN
Put aside the pressure of the essays for a day or two and just write and then keep writing. Jot down a daily journal. Jot down your thoughts about the pandemic. Jot down your gratitudes. Don’t worry about grammar or trying to write in any certain way about any certain topic. Just get comfortable putting words on a piece of paper — or screen. Hell, write to us here on A2C every day for a week so you can get comfortable with your voice. You can do this while writing your personal essay.
STEP THREE: WWW.THISIBELIEVE.ORG
EDIT TO ADD: Why am I ok with “this I believe” essays and not “essays that worked”? Great question. It’s because “this I believe essays” aren’t written with the intent to try to impress someone, but they are written (the good ones anyway) to express innermost values. Also, there are literally thousands of them, so you can play for hours listening and digging in and learning about what a personal essay sounds like that goes in deep and really personal. Here’s a link to some of my favorites.
STEP FOUR: I LOVE… I VALUE… I BELIEVE… ONE MINUTE EXERCISE
Set a one-minute timer on your phone and list out loud things you love, then list things you value, then list things you believe. Do it with a friend or do it on your own. It doesn’t matter. It’s a good warm-up. You can do this on different days or all one day. You can tell me some in the comments below if you like! (Idea from College Essay Guy)
STEP FIVE: GO WITHIN
Here’s the deal about the personal essay. It has to be just that — super, incredibly, deeply personal. The essay needs to be about inner you — the you they can’t get to know anywhere else in your application. So, you have to peel off your onion layers, find your inner Shrek, dig in super deep, and get to know yourself like you’ve never done before. What is the essence of you-ness you want the readers to know about you? It’s not easy. Ask yourself (and write down these answers) some really personal questions like:
What do I believe?
What do I think?
What do I value?
What keeps me up at night?
What do I get excited about?
What comforts me?
What worries me?
What’s important to me?
Who are my superheroes?
What’s my superpower?
What would my superpower be if I could have any superpower?
What’s my secret sauce?
What reminds me of home?
Just play with these. And learn a lot. Become the expert on you because you are really the only person who can be the expert on you. are some more questions to ask yourself as you’re going through this process. After you’ve answered them, look for themes that tell you about yourself. Then, you’ll be ready to teach the lesson about who you are and what you believe and value to the application readers. The topic is you. Any vehicle (idea or story) that gets across the message of what’s important to you can work. Start with the message you want to share about who you are. Then find ways to demonstrate that.
This doesn’t have to be — and, (in my opinion) — shouldn’t be, a complete narrative. I think the essays need to be more reflection and analysis than story. Those are the essays that stick with me after reading a few thousand of them.
I’m not saying don’t use a story. Use one or two if that’s what feels right for you. Just remember the story is only the vehicle for getting the message of who you are across the page. I like to see more commentary and less narrative, so for me the Show, not Tell isn’t really that effective. I prefer show tell — like kindergarten. I don’t want a rundown of your activities — if something is discussed elsewhere in your application, to me, you don’t want to waste the valuable space of the personal essay. In essence, you can think of it like this: More expressing, Less Impressing.
STEP SIX: ANALYZE THE PERSONAL ESSAY PROMPTS
Maybe highlight them in pretty colors and absorb them as you are in this thinking phase. All of these questions are asking you to dig deep and share what you’ve learned from your experiences. They want to see a person who’s ready to learn from mistakes and obstacles and who knows they can handle bumps in the road because they have.
STEP SEVEN: TAKE A WALK OR LONG SHOWER
Give those thoughts some time. Let these thoughts simmer. Take long walks and showers. Sit in silence. Give your brain a break from applications and all the stuff we spend so much time filling them with. Turn off ALLLLLL the screens. You’ve asked some tough questions; now you have to give your brain some time to just let the thoughts soak. Live with these thoughts and questions for a few days and just hang out with them. Maybe jot down a note or two as you think of them, but it’s important to spend some time doing nothing at all to let your brain deal with your thoughts and questions. For many of you, this is the first time in your lives you’ve grappled with some of these big questions about life.
STEP EIGHT: FUN WITH WRITING AND QUESTIONS STEP NINE: WRITE A SHITTY FIRST DRAFT
Yep. Especially if writing totally stresses you out or you feel stuck. I borrowed this idea from one of our subreddit parents who’d borrowed it from Anne Lamott. Start with writing the shittiest most terrible thing you can do. Just write down all your thoughts and words. Throw away grammar, and trying to make sense of it all. Push yourself to write some total crap. Just keep going until it’s the worst most horrible pile of words on a page you’ve seen. Here’s what she says “make it trite, make it stupid, make it arrogant, make it profane.” Get all that crappy stuff out of your head and write it down. Then put it away. Just leave it for a day or two and then I love this: She suggests doing a dramatic reading of it. How fun is that?
Read what Anne Lamotte says about Shitty First Drafts here. STEP TEN: WRITE YOUR ESSAY
Essay readers in admissions offices will read your essays quickly, so with limited time to get the essence of who you are across a sheet of paper (or computer screen), clarity and focus on INNER you are essential from the get-go. Lack of clarity, too many details about anything other than you, and language that is more complicated than necessary all build barriers between you and the reader, something you really don’t want.
Suggestion: If staring at a blank screen stresses you out, record your thoughts by talking into your recorder on your phone. That’s a great idea for those of you who like to write while you walk (like me). Then just write it all down and give it some structure if you ramble!
STEP NINE: THE THUMB TEST
If someone covered up your name with a thumb or they found your essay on the floor in the middle of your high school hallway with no name on it, would your mom or your best friend know it was yours? If not, keep working. That essay needs to sound like you with your voice and your experiences.
STEP TEN: EDIT STEP ELEVEN: BREATHE
Pat yourself on the back, sit back and smile. (and then go back and edit it again!!)
LOOK, IT’S HARD
You CAN do this. It’s hard, but so important for your future, your college admissions, for sure, but it’s also important just for future you to take the time to learn to write clearly and dig in and figure out what’s important about the essence of who you are.
** A NOTE** You’re going to hear lots of different advice about all sorts of things when it comes to college admissions, and especially about the essay. My advice to you is to take it all in and absorb what does work and doesn’t work for you. I don’t think there’s one right or wrong way to end up with a killer essay that gets to the point of you.
Tl;dr: The personal essay is about INNER YOU. Find your Inner Shrek. Build bridges, not walls. You do have an amazing essay inside you. I promise.