The worst part about writing a college admissions essay is that you just aren’t prepared for it in school. The vast majority of high school English students don’t write personal statements. We can get into why that’s the case, or we can bash English as a field of study, or we can bash the whole concept of the personal statement…but that’s not particularly helpful to anyone, and besides, you don’t need help thinking critically about the education system–you probably actually did that in your English class–you need help doing what the personal statement wants you to do: writing a story.
As with anything, we at TP recommend turning to the masters. If you’re having trouble writing your personal statement because all you ever had to do in class was write about imagery in Grapes of Wrath, pay attention to these words of wisdom from professional novelists:
1. “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” — Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, and NW, recommends keeping people away from your writing time and space, which has two important tips embedded in it:
First, “protect the time”–that is, schedule time to write your essay, and don’t let other people (or Netflix) get in the way. No, you’re never going to want to write it, and yes, it’s certainly more pressing to finish re-watching How I Met Your Mother, but you need to be strict with yourself. The hardest part is starting, and you want to get it over with as soon as possible.
Second, “keep everybody away from it.” A personal statement is personal–it’s the piece of your soul that you’re handing over to the admissions office to review–so don’t let other people tell you what to write about. You don’t want to write a personal statement that feels like it isn’t yours.
2. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov, author of…like, a lot…is often credited with this line, which means, basically, “Show, don’t tell.” (Notice that he uses the moon example rather than just saying, “Show, don’t tell.” Those novelists are crafty.)
You may want to write “I am college-worthy and thoughtful please admit me” because you know and they know that that’s all they really want to find out. Unfortunately, this doesn’t fly. You need to tell a story that emphasizes why you should be admitted. If you find yourself writing the sentence “I am [your favorite adjective here],” you need to think about how you can best illustrate it instead. Instead of “I’m inquisitive,” write about how you taught yourself rocket science during a lunch period. Instead of “I care about the community,” write about how you volunteer at a homeless shelter every week. Instead of “I work hard,” write about how you work twenty hours a week lifting cars off of babies. If you can’t think of an example of how you exemplify the statement you made, unfortunately, it might not be true.
3. “I’m always pretending that I’m sitting across from somebody. I’m telling them a story, and I don’t want them to get up until it’s finished.”- James Patterson
James Patterson, another author of a lot, puts two important messages in this quotation, as it pertains to application essays:
First, write like you’re talking to someone. No, don’t stutter, and don’t throw in hashtags and “hella”s and “swerve”s–you’re still trying to impress them, after all–but don’t sound like a robot. You’re not printing out a list of true statements; that’s what your statistics are for. Like I said, you’re giving them a piece of your soul, and your soul has to sound like it’s, you know, human and real. Don’t lean too heavily on your thesaurus. Be sincere. Be yourself.
Second, don’t be boring. You “don’t want them to get up” (i.e., reject you) “until it’s finished.” This isn’t to say that you need to throw in zombie attacks and explosions every one hundred words because, in a way, that can also be boring. Avoid cliches. Avoid stories where nothing changes between the beginning and the end (because that, frankly, isn’t a story). Be unique, and be unique in a sincere, unpretentious way.
4. “Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.” – Kurt Vonnegut
There may not be “action” and “character” in the traditional sense in your personal statement–after all, it’s real life–but every word you write has to serve a purpose (and “reaching word count” is not a purpose). When you’re limited to 650 words, there really is no space to describe the color of your wallpaper if it’s not significant to the story. If you can delete it without losing anything, you should probably delete it. A 250-word essay that gives a clear picture of who you are is infinitely better than a 645-word essay that rambles and goes off on irrelevant tangents.
5. “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.” — Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman, author of Sandman, Neverwhere, American Gods, and a ton of other books, writes what is probably the most important of these quotes. At the end of the day, it’s up to you. None of the quotes in this article are hard rules because there are none. As I said before, this is a personal statement–this is your personal statement–so don’t let other people dictate how or what you should write. You are the best judge of whether or not your personal statement communicates who you are. Just “write it honestly, and tell it as best you can.” The rest is extra.