To say admissions essays are daunting is putting it rather mildly. The application process itself –getting transcripts and recommendation letters, prepping for required admissions tests, making Big Decisions about Huge Life Changes– is arduous, terrifying, and seemingly life-ending.
And yet, despite of all that, you’re also expected to write about yourself.
This pressure often leads to feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and a little afraid. Perhaps you may even feel like an impostor. Where do you even start?
Alas, one does not have to begin by breathing into a paper bag.
The first step to writing a personal essay is really no different from that of research papers or essays– it all starts with brainstorming. For the personal essay, however, brainstorming means making a list.
Make a list of all the accomplishments, awards, honorable mentions, accolades, and even old-fashioned, good deeds that you’ve done so far. Think of everything you’ve ever done in the last few years that you’re even the slightest bit proud of, and write them down– and I mean everything. If you’re a former student body president, state chess champion, and director of the school play, then write those amazing things down. But, even if you feel that you haven’t done anything that’s “good enough” to be considered, think harder. Your first step to a great personal essay is to sit down, get out a sheet of paper, and stay a while. Spend time thinking of how awesome you are, and all the equally awesome things you’ve done. Everyone’s done something worthwhile and noteworthy, whether it was volunteering to save orphans in a third-world country or being a good friend to someone in their time of need. Helping old ladies cross a street counts too. It can be anything– I mean it. Be shameless.
Keep this list handy as this will not only serve as a jump-off point for possible topic ideas but also be a helpful reminder during the application process that you CAN do this.
Once you’ve exhausted every possible feat, step away from it, take the rest of the day off, and work on other parts of your application (this is a prime example of why time management is extremely important). The next day, return to your list. What sticks out to you? What do you feel most proud of? If you’re still stuck, hand this list to someone else, anyone you’d trust to give an objective opinion. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a family member or friend–a coworker or neighbor will do. What do they think?
Circle a couple of options from your list, the ones that stand out to you (or your friend) the most. When you’ve narrowed it down to two or three, jot down a few notes on each, and go forward from there. If need be, consult your friend again or yet another person. Follow this same process of elimination until, boom, you’ve got yourself a topic and started the essay writing process. And, hopefully, you haven’t reached for that paper bag yet.
Easy? Of course not. But, at least this way, you can make a topic choice that is not rushed or haphazard and can hold the attention of your reader. Holding your reader’s attention is crucial as your reader, in this instance, is the person deciding your academic future. If you’re not content with what you’ve narrowed it down to, start the process again. There’s nothing to be afraid of starting over; however, you should certainly be afraid of writing about a topic you’re not entirely happy with which is A LOT harder to do, let alone to do successfully. Repeating the process a couple of times may be just what you need to get your gears rolling on a topic that is truly awesome.