In the fall (in the northern hemisphere), my students start coming to me in droves asking me what they should write about in their essays. Like a lot of young people today, they are very worried about getting into a good school; California is facing some pretty drastic budget cuts, while people are applying to the University of California in record numbers. In a word, it’s harder today than it has ever been to gain admission to such prestigious universities as U.C. Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, and the like. But more on that in future writing.
Today, I want to talk about what to write about in your personal statements. What to write about in your personal statements
Every year, TestMagic gives workshops on the college admissions process, including two personal statement workshops. Time and again, we hear the same question–I don’t know what to write about. What do I write about? In truth, it is actually a difficult question. If any of us were asked to write something personal, something at once interesting to an outsider and deeply connected with our core personalities, the truth is, we’d struggle. We should struggle. That’s part of the process.
It’s an especially great challenge for young people today to write something meaningful and insightful. There are a lot of forces at work (No Child Left Behind, the yearly published rankings of the likes of U.S. News and World Report to name two), but students today are clearly under more pressure to achieve measurable results. In a word, today’s high school students are taught that a high GPA is more important than say, a nice drawing. Or “demonstrating leadership” by being treasurer of the yearbook committee is a greater contribution to society than is being generally helpful, funny, and kind.
So, many young people today look at their lives and fail to find anything that “looks good on paper.” Worse, a lot of these same people don’t value any of their qualities. Of course a lot of one’s upbringing and personality come into play here, but the bottom line is that many people simply don’t view themselves as special, unique, or different. And in American culture today, if you’re not a Type-A, 4.7 GPA, 2300 SAT, world-conquering class president, the best universities are not interested in you. Or so it seems to many people today.
The 17-year-old soldier
If you’ve had an eventful life, then great. Write about it. I remember a young person who had lived in three countries in her life–the former Soviet Union, a country in the Middle East, and now the United States. In the Middle East, she was conscripted into the army. As chance had it, she was on active service during an important conflict. All at the age of 17. She was a very bright and motivated student and was accepted by U.C. Berkeley, her first-choice university (but not by UCLA). (Of course, many factors came into play; her unique experiences did not ensure her admission to Berkeley.)
So, let’s say you’ve never been in the army. Or fought in a war. Or you didn’t grow up in the inner-city. You haven’t invented anything or started a successful volunteer organization. There’s still hope for you!
It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it
What to do if you can think of anything to write? Well, there are the usual suggestions–brainstorm, make a list, etc. And those are excellent suggestions, which I will cover a bit later. But first, I’d like to point out that sometimes, or perhaps even most of the time, how you say something is more important than what you say. I remember a student some years ago who struggled with this very problem–she simply felt that her life did not stand out enough. She actually enjoyed her classes in high school and loved learning. One of her favorite pastimes was drawing. After a lot of discussion, she decided to write an essay that showed her thoughts while she was drawing. Her essay turned out very nicely, I thought. She was a strong candidate to begin with and gained admission to almost all of the universities she applied to, including U.C. Berkeley, UCLA, and a few others.
Tomorrow I will write about specific activities that will help you discover that and how you are unique.