In an article published in the Education Life section of the New York Times last year, an external admissions reader for University of California at Berkeley wrote:
“…we had been told to read for the “authentic” voice over students whose writing bragged of volunteer trips to exotic places or anything that “smacks of privilege… fortunately, that authentic voice articulated itself abundantly. Many essays lucidly expressed a sense of self and character…”
The personal statement for the Common App looms over the summer for rising high school seniors and carries over into first semester. 650 words to describe oneself in a meaningful way, a creative, well-written essay that can make the difference in distinguishing one worthy student from another — and perhaps the deciding factor in a student’s admission to a college of choice.
The New York Times article goes on to describe some of the essays as “canny attempts to catch some sympathy with a personal story of generalized misery… the torrent of woe could make a reader numb: not another student suffering from parents’ divorce, a learning difference, a rare disease…”
So how does the average 17 year old find an event or personal philosophy so unique that it will capture the attention of an admissions counselor reading through thousands of applications?
In my work with high school seniors preparing the Comm App essay, the question of what to write about provides the major stumbling point, although the actual writing and editing becomes equally challenging for many students.
Brainstorming for a topic is actually an important process for many students and can lead them to evaluating who they are, what they care about and importantly, what they want to accomplish during their four years of college.
Many students have been blessed by having relatively peaceful years growing up, unmarred by illness, economic problems, catastrophic events. Does this mean that a student won’t have something relevant to write about in a personal statement?
My advice for a starting point includes these considerations:
- What do you care about — in your personal life or the larger world around you?
- Who has influenced you the most as you’ve grown up?
- Has anything occurred in your life that shook your personal world? An incident that made you question your thinking about what you believe in or value?
- What do you feel is unique about yourself? What are you proud of? What has shaped your thinking?
The process of reflection usually generates some ideas and I work with students to shape and organize a written statement. Only at this point does their writing begin, resulting in a thoughtful essay through several drafts, or even more than one essay so they have a choice.
It may seem like a difficult process — and it is — but it’s not without value. As a high school student goes off in the world, considering these questions may be an unexpected benefit of this process: What is it you want to do; what do you care about; who do you want to become? Defining one’s interests and goals at 17, on the brink of starting off in the world, should perhaps be in every student’s personal curriculum.