While many may argue that melting ice cream cones and visits to the county fair are the images most representative of the season, for rising seniors, summer is best typified by pencils and erasers, lined paper (or sometimes graph, depending upon preference), and the familiar sound of fingers upon keyboards. That's right, for seniors, summer is the best time to get ahead on the personal essay, if they haven’t begun to do so already. Often, the hardest part for students is simply getting started. They lament that they can’t identify the perfect topic or that they are hesitant to turn in a draft that isn’t perfect from the get-go. My advice? Let your inhibitions go and just start writing. Here are some tips to put you at ease—to help you put that pen to paper and see where it takes you!
Write your story first, then worry about the prompt.
More often than not, my students are salivating for the essay prompts before they’ve sat down and written out their story. In reality, the best essays that I’ve seen have actually been borne out of a student’s need to convey something important about him or her, and later they finesse that essential piece of their application into one of the essay prompts. Don’t be afraid to tell your story first. This ensures that you have gotten across that essential piece of who you are before you’ve been confined by a question.
Your topic is a vehicle to convey your story. Your message is the crux of your essay.
It happens all the time. A student comes to me with a beautifully written essay. Their I’s are dotted and their T’s are crossed. Their prose is impeccable. But when I ask them what their message is, they stare at me blankly, unable to tell me what it is that they want their reader to know. The topic is secondary to the message. I like to have students “begin with the end in mind.” That is, before we can decide where to start, we must decide where we want to end. Take a moment to jot down what you want your reader to know about you by the time he or she has finished reading your essay. Beginning with the end in mind will help you convey the qualities that make you uniquely you.
Write from the heart and not from the head.
Students have been so practiced in turning out the 5-paragraph thesis essay that it comes as a shock to them that—gasp—that’s not what colleges want to see (at least not in the personal essay). The (ho-hum) essay that students are used to writing for class does not have the ability to get across the intricacies of their personalities. Approaching the essay as a creative writing piece—as an essay from the heart and not from the head—lets students allow their creative juices to flow. Remember that admissions officers have to read an extraordinary number of ordinary essays; they want to be entertained! Don’t be afraid to play around with sentence structure and diction. Your essay will be more memorable that way.