Writing a college application essay with a prompt is trouble enough, but writing a short essay entirely about yourself with little guidance and an open-ended prompt is an entirely different (and arguably more difficult) project to conquer. While there are thousands of “formulas” for writing this type of college essay, the truth of the matter is that a personal statement needs to be just that: personal. With that in mind, there are certain approaches to writing that can help with articulation and readability—all of which we’ll discuss in depth right now.
Planning your writing
The first step to writing any organized piece of work is undoubtedly to draft up a plan. You don’t necessarily need to follow your plan perfectly, but it should loosely guide you throughout the process and help prevent writer’s block. An easy and stress-free way to start planning your personal statement is to just throw out ideas. You could scribble out anything you’d like to include about yourself on paper, or you could record audio bites of sentences or thoughts you want to work into your final essay. There are many ways to collect ideas, so find one that works for you.
Once you have at least a dozen notes, begin organizing them. This time, I suggest using a piece of paper to make a few bubbles, one representing each paragraph. There should be at least an introduction, one middle paragraph (the “meat”), and a conclusion. In case your personal statement is meant to exceed 200 words, try to add multiple “meaty” paragraphs. The introduction and conclusion should be similar; they should both outline the center paragraphs and capture the essence of the paper. Fill in these bubbles with sentence ideas, general topics, or bulleted points to hit. Once you’ve got a general outline, feel free to reformat the plan to better fit your personal writing style.
Making stylistic choices
You’ve been writing formally and concisely about your accomplishments for quite a while, I’m sure, so the colleges you’re applying to are well aware of your GPA and academic interests. Try to step away from this cool and impersonal way of writing and use the personal statement to infuse your personality into your application. If you love metaphors, squeeze a handful in. If you’re a music fanatic, try to sprinkle in some references to that interest. This personal piece shouldn’t seem like a graded report, so spice it up with personality in any way you can. And most importantly: Don’t write the personal statement like a text! It may feel less formal, but it’s still representing you as a student. Write about yourself as the interesting and multifaceted person that you are while still adhering to standard grammar and spelling.
Having writer’s block
If you’re having writer’s block when writing about yourself, there’s a fair chance you aren’t writing from within—and that you’re taking into account what a thousand other articles like this one have directed you to do. Like I said before, this statement is supposed to be personal. Write what you feel, and don’t feel obligated to stick to the well-worn path; unless, of course, that’s who you are. If you don’t feel like the kind of person who takes risks and thinks outside the box, it’s possible that a traditional essay is just the thing you should represent yourself with.
I understand how tempting it is to try to do the “right” thing. I began planning my college essays more than a year before I submitted them, and the majority of my drafts were nothing special. I worked hard on them, but there was no me hidden between the lines. And then, just a week before everything was due, I decided to make my applications completely my own. I wrote poems in place of regular essays and tied all of my writing together with themes. I even went so far as to include my own hand-drawn ladybugs on a creative résumé. While this isn’t something everyone should do, it fit my eclectic and artistic personality and earned me a spot at my dream school. Sometimes those seemingly crazy ideas end up being the best ones, so take a risk and make this essay about you.
Packing the punch
You want to find out how to add that wonderful, unforgettable quality to your writing. The truth? Take a risk. Do something different. Nothing within the lines ever shocked anyone. If you’re going to use a theme, make sure it infuses a new meaning to each paragraph. Don’t lazily place thematic references at the end of each paragraph. If you’re going to write a song, poem, or story, don’t use basic rhymes or flat metaphors; instead, use your favorite words and beautiful language to paint a picture that’ll tug on the heartstrings of your reader. In whatever you do, make the choice to do it well and with intention. You have a limited number of words to express the entirety of your personality and potential in this essay—and it’s going to be work to compress a life so cleanly.
Editing your personal statement
Writing is rewriting! This is a phrase that’s overused for good reason. Good editing is more important than a good first draft. Luckily, there are dozens of ways to go about editing. Below are potential paths for editing, along with some positive and negative aspects of each. Be sure to honestly weigh the pros and cons of each option before making a choice about your own essay.
Editing your own essay
You may decide that your essay is too personal to share and choose to just edit it yourself. I made this choice understanding it was a risky one, so if you too are drawn to the idea of doing your own editing, it’s important to know that it can be hard to recognize your own shortcomings as a writer. And if you miss some of those mistakes, your piece may ultimately be confusing to your audience.
Having a friend edit your essay
If you have a friend you trust, it can be nice to have a peer review your work. But something to seriously consider is the lack of experience they likely have, and the fact that they themselves probably haven’t written many essays of this kind. For a quick review, a friend makes sense, but for an in-depth editing session, turn to someone with more experience.
Having a family member edit your essay
If you have a family member with writing experience, this might be a wonderful choice, but it’s important to consider that just because the family member applied to college (if this is the case) at some point in the past doesn’t mean they’re an expert. They may also have an idea of you as a person that differs from the (hopefully) raw version presented through your essay, which may make it difficult for them to comprehend your stylistic choices.
Having a teacher edit your essay
Teachers are notoriously well written and definitely experienced in editing, but I (and many of my peers) have noticed that English teachers specifically have a tendency to guide students back to the well-worn path. As with any editor, take their notes into account but always with a grain of salt. Teachers are wonderful editors, but they’re used to helping students write certain kinds of essays—ones that don’t have a lot in common with a personal statement.
Having a professional edit your essay
If you can afford to hire a professional, it’s important to make it clear you don’t want any major stylistic changes. Many people who are hired to edit are actuality hired to revamp a tired essay. In the process of doing so, they may very well strip the paper of what makes it yours and mistakenly infuse their own personality into it.
Using online swap-edit sites (with strangers)
There are a handful of sites out there that offer a service swap with other students applying to college. Though I haven’t known anyone who’s had issues with this type of service, I would personally never go about having a paper edited like this. There’s a huge chance the students editing your papers aren’t well versed in the application process—or at absolute worst, they’re desperate and willing to plagiarize.
Your personal statement is a tool meant to showcase all that makes you unique and a worthy addition to your college(s) of interest. Plan, edit, and revise, but don’t mistake it as your average piece of writing. This paper should capture as much of you as a short piece is able to and ensure that nobody from admission forgets you.
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