Getting started on a personal essay can be challenging. How do you convey the details of your accomplishments in an interesting way? The answer is, you don’t.
We’ve been there. When one of our writers was in high school, she struggled to start her essays. It seemed impossible to her to tell the admissions committee all of what she had done in her high school career in just a few hundred words without simply writing a list. But that’s not the point of the exercise. Kids often try to break themselves into parts of a whole. For our writer, it looked something like, “one part community service, two parts student government and two parts theater.” Like many kids, our writer thought that she had to take those parts and find an interesting story that concluded with “and this is what I learned from that.”
Don’t Fall for the Trap
Our writer isn’t the only one. One of our kids was a highly-accomplished robotics competitor. One month in the summer, instead of competing herself, she volunteered at a middle school in an underserved neighborhood and helped the girl's team prepare for their own competition. During the event, our student was blown away by, not only how committed the team was to winning, but also how effective they were at problem-solving. For them, this competition was an incredible opportunity for the future and while our student had used her knowledge of engineering to build impressive robots, these girls applied that same problem-solving skillset to communicating with one another in order to ensure their success. In that one day, our student learned more than she had in the past few years of competing herself.
While that’s a lovely story and was a really profound experience for our student, it’s not actually what colleges want to hear about. They know our kid was a champion robotics competitor. They saw it on her resume and probably heard about it in her advisor’s teacher recommendation. But we felt that by talking about this story, our student would have made a few mistakes. For one, she flagged her privilege as a kid who came from money, had access to a lot of robotics equipment and the time and ability to take the summer to volunteer within a low-income community. The thing is, our student is also extremely compassionate and a strong leader, but the admissions team wouldn’t have known that just by reading her essay. Had she been busy writing about her humbling experience, she would’ve omitted herself from the piece.
Start with Slivers
Essays are a vehicle for you to convey to the admissions committee teeny, tiny slices of your personality. In other words, they are an exercise in humanizing yourself in two minutes or less. Start out with why your friends call you. Do they call you to help them solve a problem? Do they call you to celebrate an accomplishment with them? To talk about big ideas? Ask your friends to describe you and distinguish what those little slivers, the glimpses into your personality, actually are.
One of our kids is a ballerina. She practices for 25 hours/week. We did not have her write about being a ballerina. We actually had her write about her empathy. She’s the one everyone calls if they need someone to lean on. So, we had her write a Saturday morning journal, including time stamps. The events didn’t include major, life-altering crises. In actuality, her friends often called her at 9:00 am on a Saturday to say things like, “hey, my sister is moving to France and I’m not going to see her for a year.”
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