Tell my story? Fine, but how?
The common advice to "tell your story" has probably been around as long as the admission essay itself. But since when have high school students been afforded the time and feedback to practice telling their stories? And how are you supposed to approach this advice? What parts of your story are you supposed to share in your college essay, how, and why?
When I left teaching high school English a little more than two years ago, the curriculum even then was too packed with everyday academic concerns and standardized testing preparation to invite seniors to practice personal narrative with the same level of structured feedback that they received for academic writing. I have heard from high school teachers that this condition has only intensified since the rollout of the Common Core.
The five-paragraph essays and thesis statements they are accustomed to writing for class do students little good in personal writing, including on their college applications. These are inventions designed for American students to practice national conventions of argumentation—despite the fact that expectations for academic writing change from high school to college. Yet they are what high school students have to work with when put on the spot in their college applications.
In a way the college admission game is a standardized assessment, but it differs in that students are suddenly supposed to write not academically but personally. Given this lack of training in personal writing and the stresses of college admission, it’s important that students find a structured yet creative way to tell their own stories when dealing with low word counts.
So here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Only you, the student, can determine what is worth writing about. While family may have suggestions, it’s ultimately your story to tell and how.
- In personal writing, there is no need to justify why you are writing about one thing or another. This is the academic habit of proving a thesis. When it seeps into personal writing, it limits the creative potential of the personal essay.
- Choose one or two narrative moments and tell them in the moment. These moments are representative of your story.
- It’s important to accept that any story you attempt to tell will necessarily be incomplete. Avoid the temptation of recounting your memory “exactly” as you remember it. Rather, remember that you are being assessed on the quality of your personal essay, not the quality of your memory. So use the memory as a starting point for the essay, but make sure you end up with a narrative that stands solidly and creatively on its own.
- Try free writing without a prompt and without worrying about the word count—at least at first. A narrative will likely suit at least two of your college’s prompts.
The college personal statement is a strange beast. To my knowledge, college applicants are the only personal essayists who have to write about themselves because someone else expects them to and because big stakes are riding on it. From the birth of the personal essay—typically traced to Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century—the tradition of the genre is self-exploration and discovery, the personal somehow tied to universally human concerns, driven by the curiosity to know more about both. Yet this American rite of passage has given rise to a peculiar kind of de facto national literature.
In short, despite students’ ever-intensifying pressures, schedules, and responsibilities, I hope that by engaging with the genre of the personal essay, students can write for themselves with this sense of curiosity—first, for themselves.
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You’ve taken the tests, requested the recommendations, completed the common app, and now it’s finally time to refocus on what you’ve been putting off: the essay.
While most students spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting their personal statements, admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes actually reading them, according to Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.
High school seniors are faced with the challenge of summarizing the last 17 years into 600 words, all while showcasing their “unique” personality against thousands of other candidates.
“It’s hard to find a balance between sounding professional and smart without using all of those long words,” says Lily Klass, a senior at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. “I’m having trouble reflect myself without sounding arrogant or rude or anything like that.”
The following tips will help applicants make the leap from ‘average’ to ‘accepted’:
1. Open with an anecdote.
Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.
“Instead of trying to come up with gimmicky, catchy first lines, start by sharing a moment,” says Janine Robinson, writing coach and founder of Essay Hell. “These mini stories naturally grab the reader … it’s the best way to really involve them in the story.”
Let the moment you choose be revealing of your personality and character. Describe how it shaped who you are today and who you will be tomorrow.
2. Put yourself in the school’s position.
At the end of the day, colleges want to accept someone who is going to graduate, be successful in the world and have the university associated with that success. In your essay, it is vital that you present yourself as someone who loves to learn, can think critically and has a passion for things—anything.
“Colleges always say to show your intellectual vitality and curiosity,” Robinson says. “They want kids who are going to hit the ground running—zoom to class and straight out into the world. They want them hungry and self-aware.
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3. Stop trying so hard.
“One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying too hard to impress,” Robinson says. “Trust that it is those every day, specific subjects that are much more interesting to read about.”
Colleges are tired of reading about that time you had a come-from-behind- win in the state championship game or the time you built houses in Ecuador, according to Robinson. Get creative!
Furthermore, you’re writing doesn’t have to sound like Shakespeare. “These essays should read like smart, interesting 17-year-olds wrote them,” says Lacy Crawford, former independent college application counselor and author of Early Decision. “A sense of perspective and self-awareness is what’s interesting.
4. Ditch the thesaurus. Swap sophistication for self-awareness
There is a designated portion of the application section designated to show off your repertoire of words. Leave it there.
On the personal essay, write how you would speak. Using “SAT words” in your personal statement sounds unnatural and distances the reader from you.
“I think most students are torn between a pathway dividing a diary entry and a press release. It’s supposed to be marketing document of the self,” Crawford says.
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5. Write about what matters to you, not what matters to them
Crawford recommends students begin by answering the question, “if you had 10 minutes to talk to them in person, what would you say?” The admissions teams are looking for authenticity and quality of thinking.
“Theoretically, I think anything could be ‘the perfect topic, as long as you demonstrate how well you think, your logic and ability to hold readers’ attention,” Crawford says.
6. Read the success stories.
“The best advice is to read essays that have worked,” Robinson says. “You’ll be surprised to see that they’re not winning Pulitzers; they are pieces of someone. You want your story to be the one she doesn’t put down.”
Once you find a topic you like, sit down and write for an hour or so. It shouldn’t take longer than that. When you write from your heart, words should come easily.
Rawlins recommends showing the essay to a family member or friend and ask if it sounds like the student. “Take a few days and come back to it. But only do that once,” Rawlins says. “Reading it over and over again will only drive you nuts.”
7. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
While colleges tend to nod to disadvantaged students, roughing up your background won’t help your cause.
“It’s less about the topic and more about how you frame it and what you have to say about it, Robinson says. “The better essay is has the most interesting thing to say, regardless of a topic that involves a crisis or the mundane.”
The essays serve as a glimpse into how your mind works, how you view the world and provides perspective. If you have never had some earth shattering experience that rocked your world, don’t pretend you did. Your insights will be forced and disingenuous.
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8. Follow the instructions.
While the directions on the applications may sound generic, and even repetitive after applying to a variety of schools, Rawlins points out that every rhyme has a reason.
“They have to know that college put a lot of thought into the instructions we give them—so please follow them!” he says. “We’ve given a lot of thought to the words we use. We want what we ask for.”
9. Use this space to tell them what your application can’t.
Most colleges don’t have the time or bandwidth to research each individual applicant. They only know what you put in front of them. “If they don’t tell us something, we can’t connect the dots,” Rawlins says. “We’re just another person reading their material.”
Like Crawford, he recommends students imagining they are sitting next to him in his office and responding to the question, “What else do I need to know?” And their essays should reflect how they would respond.
At the end of the day, however, Rawlins wants students to know that the personal essay is just another piece of the larger puzzle. “They prescribe way too much importance to the essay,” Rawlins says. “It makes a massive difference—good or bad—to very few out there, so keep it in context.”
Paige Carlotti is a senior at Syracuse University.
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