Last Updated On: June 6th, 2023
Let me start by saying: dread is a reasonable feeling when it comes to approaching the personal statement. Say you’ve navigated the last three years with nothing but energy and persistence. Say you’ve gotten up at 6am every weekday for lacrosse practice, or for the AP Music Theory class that was only available at a neighboring school, or simply to crank out the homework you fell asleep doing last night.
You’re tired. You’ve worked hard. And now you have to write an essay about it?
The fear is real. As in life, however, we can dignify the fear as real while also moving towards it. As Pema Chodron writes in When Things Fall Apart: “The next time you encounter fear, consider yourself lucky. This is where the courage comes in.”
Is it dramatic to reference When Things Fall Apart in relation to the college essay? In some ways, sure. After all, no one dies from writing a college essay, and perhaps there’s value in naming that.
Still, writing these essays can be incredibly stressful and hair-raisingly personal. For some of you, it will be the first time you’ve reflected on your life in such a raw and structured way. As an essay coach, I hear students express skepticism about this aspect of the process all the time. “My parents are healthy. I’m privileged enough to have both my arms. I’ve only lived on this planet for 17 years (or 14 if you disregard the years buried deep in my hippocampus). What could I possibly have to write about?”
A lot. And by understanding this, you’ve already completed the first, most crucial step to writing your college essay.
But before we go there, I want you to understand something: there’s a lot to appreciate about the college essay. For one thing, it’s an opportunity to show admissions personnel who you are outside of academics. Couldn’t wrap your mind around a mole in AP Chemistry? It’s okay. Still aren’t sure what that maniac we call Shakespeare was on about, and now your Honors English grade is the only blemish on your otherwise pristine transcript? It’s okay. Luckily, you are not your grade point average. The personal essay is your chance to put your transcript in a drawer and have a conversation with another human being about what makes you tick outside of academics. And that’s a very exciting thing.
Beyond that, I empower you to reimagine the personal statement as your own private writing practice. Imagine no one will ever see it. Imagine it’s your journal. Better yet, imagine you’re stuffing a prayer into the Western Wall. This is a chance to communicate with yourself, not with Sandra in Admissions. What experiences of yours are you looking to wrap your head around? The answer could be the key to unlocking your college essay.
What separates a great personal statement from a good one?
Story – This one gets a lot of airtime, but for good reason. Admissions folks read thousands of essays per year. If you were them, would you want a page-long recitation of your resume, or would you want a good story?
Human beings have told stories for as long as they have had the words to share them (scratch that, longer—I forgot about cave paintings). Envisioning your own life as a story might feel overly dramatic or forced, but it helps us make meaning of what can otherwise feel like random, unrelated events.
How? Making connections. Take the Ugly Duckling, for instance. Say he goes through life facing rejection at every turn. Now, say he goes through life facing rejection at every turn, then discovers that what made him ugly to some makes him beautiful to others. Why is that a story? Because that duck needed to experience adversity in order to learn to see himself in a different light.
Think about yourself as a character. What were you like prior to the challenge you’re writing about? Why did you need that challenge in order to grow?
Vulnerability – Rumor has it, Gen Z is more vulnerable than those who came before. Good! But let’s not pretend 2023 is the age of the open book. Bullying is still pervasive, as are crushes and bacne and deeply uninventive yet catchy nicknames. It’s only natural for young people to protect themselves. Still, your essay—and anyone you share it with ahead of submitting—should provide a safe space for you to investigate your most challenging—perhaps even embarrassing—moments.
“Hold on. Do I have to talk about the time I peed my pants in homeroom?” No. This is your essay, so you should only go as deep as is useful to you. “Is there such a thing as too vulnerable?” Of course. We can spare Sandra tales of your suffocating parents, or why Jeremy shouldn’t have broken up with you in the first place. The objective is still to get you into the college of your choice. Striking a balance between personal and too personal is part of showing admissions folks that you are mature enough to understand the difference.
Truthfulness – Is this really so different from vulnerability? Yes, and in some ways it’s more difficult. Life’s challenges seldom have easy solutions, so it doesn’t necessarily follow that by getting real about a challenging situation in your past, there will be a clear-cut lesson at the end.
Still, try to resist the urge to manufacture a happy ending. Again, admissions officers read thousands of essays per year, so their nonsense detector is finely attuned. If there isn’t an easy answer, don’t break your back trying to find one. Instead, go towards that discomfort and confusion. It may just provide its own answers.
Vivid Descriptions – Ever hear of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure?” So it is with description. Even the best stories can be told in boring, lackluster ways. You could write about your trip to the moon and bore me silly, just as you could write about your perfunctory doctor’s appointment and put me on the edge of my seat. The same sensory details you might consider boring might just be the difference between Sandra sitting up straighter or falling asleep.
How to Begin the Process
Take yourself seriously – Like I said, the sudden sense that your life is boring is a normal response to having to write about it. I remember feeling this way when I started college, where it suddenly seemed as though everyone around me had lived in a houseboat in England or backpacked through the Serengeti or gotten their pastry certification at the Cordon Bleu. Having grown up without the resources for such adventures, I sometimes felt like a failure.
But some of the best stories are about everyday people. It’s not a matter of sailing the seven seas or unearthing some long-buried ancestral trauma—it’s a matter of dignifying your own experiences with value and interest.
Start early – This one is a no brainer, but it will be far less stressful to begin writing your college essay during the summer. For those considering applying early decision, this is not so much a piece of advice as it is a requirement. Using the summer to brainstorm and try out ideas will be far less stressful than attempting to narrow down your ideas under the wire.
Journal – If you’re not sure where to start, then journaling can be a useful exercise. Throw out some ideas! You may discover things about yourself you’d never consciously considered.
Usually, personal statements respond to questions like: “Describe a challenge you encountered. How did you grow from it?” Still, the way you arrive at the answer to this question might be by asking yourself a different one. For instance, it might be useful to consider a time when you were uncomfortable or took a risk you weren’t sure would pay off.
Don’t Use ChatGPT – Powerful though the temptation might be, resist the urge to use tools like ChatGPT. A robotic tool will produce a robotic essay.
I like what this high school English teacher wrote about the allure of AI: “I was reminded how my students face pressure from multiple sources to chase the perfect resume, oftentimes to the detriment of their mental and physical health. It is not our careers and subjects on the line but rather our students’ relationship to writing and the lack of compelling and purposeful reasons we’re giving them to write in the first place.”
Young people, particularly today, are sorely in need of meaningful reasons to write. This is why the college essay is such a great opportunity—if mining your own experiences for meaning isn’t compelling, then what is?
If you’re looking for resources to guide your writing process, then you have options:
Read Compelling Non-Fiction – People have been writing about themselves and others long before the college essay existed per se. Reading Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” or Julia Alvarez’s “Names/Nombres” may help you familiarize yourself with what a personal essay looks and feels like. Just make sure you’re not imitating the voice of another writer. Exploring your singular voice remains the priority here.
Work with an essay coach – Whether you’re seeking structure, expertise, or just an empathetic listener, working with a writing coach who specializes in the college essay can be a godsend. Like me, most essay coaches work both independently and with one or more companies. One-on-one sessions are the most common, but there are other formats available. This summer, for instance, I’m co-teaching a college essay workshop, where students have the unique opportunity to workshop their essays with teachers and peers. If you’re not sure where to look for an essay coach, try asking peers or friends of the family if they’ve worked with one and can refer you.
Your initial consultation with a writing coach should be a two-way street; you’re interviewing them to see if it will be a good fit. Come with a list of questions, like: “How do you normally work with students? How hands-on are you as an editor? Is my timeline for completing drafts realistic?” If you intend to use this process as an opportunity to improve your writing skills, then ask if they can adjust their teaching style accordingly.
Remember, it’s still your essay, not theirs. I’ve worked with students who’ve gone on to attend Yale, Columbia, and Stanford, and the number-one quality they have in common is an ability to take ownership of their essays.
Form a Writing Group – If working with an essay coach is out of reach, that’s okay. From parents to peers, empathetic readers (and listeners) come in many forms. Seek them out, agree on a schedule, and make sure you’re comfortable with them reading your work. There’s no reason that writing a college essay has to feel lonely.
Gina Hackett is a filmmaker and essay coach based in Los Angeles. After attending Harvard as an undergraduate, Gina completed her MFA in Film at Columbia, where she has also served as a Screenwriting instructor and guest speaker.