Tag Archives: topic formulation
We’ve all suffered from it. I certainly have and, at some point in time, I’m sure you have as well. Plenty of famous authors have succumbed to it, also. It’s an affliction common to both creative and academic writers alike.
There are many reasons to writer’s block occurs, and nearly just as many strategies to overcome or at least circumvent it. This week, I will cover those particular to academic writing, by going over scenarios that all students have found themselves in. By learning what to handle these kinds of situations, you can unplug the stopper, unblock your writing, and get yourself going again.
You’ve started writing your paper, but you don’t really know where you’re going with it.
This is probably the most common of writing blockages. You’re sitting at your computer starting your paper when you realize, “Crap, I don’t even know what I’m saying.”
This lost feeling is often the symptom of disorganization. I’ve talked about the importance of outlining in some of my posts on personal statements, but it’s just as relevant here as well. When writing an essay or paper, you need to devise a convincing argument– a thesis that is strong from beginning to end, and is presented and explained thoroughly and clearly. One of the ways to ensure this is by creating an outline, so that you can create a framework to build your argument upon.
But, in terms of defeating writer’s block, outlining helps clarify your own thought process. Staring at pages of academic research, peer-reviewed journals, and a blank word document will cause anyone to go into a foggy, non-writing trance. But, realizing that your thesis can be deduced to a basic logical structure, it can ease some of your anxiety. With a well-devised outline, you can see your argument unfold which, in effect, will help you see exactly where you should be going.
You have a topic, but you hate it.
The writing assignments that you dislike are some of the most difficult ones to write– this much is true. Whether you find the topic to be boring, the content disagreeable, or you just don’t understand the material, you have your reasons to dislike the assignment given, all of which are hard to surmount.
Unfortunately, there’s no way out of doing what is asked of you. Sorry, but there’s no way out of doing the work. That being said, you can get yourself through it.
As I have said earlier, you should aim for a topic that addresses the overall theme of the course– what does the professor want you to come away from course with? What major themes or ties can be drawn through the material? If you’re still having difficulty, then consider this: What aspect of the material did you like the best? Or, what can you at least explain the best?
If you’re still deep in trouble, try speaking to your professor or, at the very least, your TA. (This is when having good time management skills will come in handy.) If you are having trouble finding a topic that interests you, they should also be able to offer suggestions. However, if you’re you’re having difficulty with the material itself, you’re experiencing more than writer’s block, and should look to outside help. If this is the case, you must speak to your professor– not only so he/she could understand your predicament but also to better your own understanding of the task at hand. If for whatever reason they aren’t helpful to you (and they really should be if they’re worth their salt), try talking to your classmates. Or, find someone who has taken this class before. Even try speaking to your librarian. Your goal should be to reach out to someone who can give you some guidance– if you’re truly lost in the course, you need to throw out a lifeline. If you find yourself struggling with the material, it will make the writing process that much harder. Do everything you can to find someone to help you– most schools have some sort of advising or tutoring program that you can turn to for help, as well.
You just don’t want to write.
Well, sorry to break it to you. There’s no real way to get out of this aside from taking an incomplete, dropping the course, or, worst of all, failing it outright. As fatalistic as it sounds, even if you don’t want to write, you’ll have to resign yourself to the task eventually.
But, sometimes, this extreme dislike is often masking some other problem– do you not want to write because you don’t know how to engage the topic? Or do you not want to write because you don’t understand the material fully? Or, alternatively, do you just not want to do it because you’d rather play Words with Friends? Be honest with yourself. If you’re having difficulties engaging with the material or understanding the assignment, follow what I said above. Often, writer’s block emerges when you are experiencing some sort of difficulty with the assignment, so do a bit of a self-check up. Here, brushing up on your outline will help you figure what kinks need to be worked out– it will help you see where the fogginess is coming from. Talking to others, like your professor or classmates, will help as well– some outside feedback may just be what you need. Try to figure where this writing malaise is coming from; chances are it’s from being overwhelmed by one of the issues I’ve stated above.
But, if you don’t want to write simply because you “just don’t want to,” then you’ll have to get past that. There’s no easy way around it. Get off Facebook, Twitter, this blog, whatever. If need be, disable your Internet connection– save all your articles and research so you can work offline to avoid distractions. Do whatever it takes for you to stop procrastinating and get motivated. In this case, talking to others may not be the best idea; you can’t afford yourself any further time away from doing what needs to get done. You might not like writing, I understand that. You might be one of those people who just don’t feel “right” in academia– I understand that as well. However, there is no salve or “quick-fix” to getting out of doing the work. (Or at least moral ones anyway, and I’m certainly NOT suggesting those by any means!) And, spending time away from the assignment is only putting off the inevitable which, as time goes on, will only grow in its dreadfulness. So, do yourself a favor and just get it over with. Stretch, go for a short run, take a shower, whatever– then, grit your teeth and rip the bandaid off and just do it. Trust me, you’ll be happier once it’s done.
Last week, I was invited to lead a college essay writing workshop for Camp G.O.A.L.S. for Girls, an incredible program dedicated to high school girls pursuing math and science degrees.
The students in attendance were between the ages of 13 and 16. Most were in the very beginning stages of the admissions process for next cycle but others were definitely on the younger side of my usual student pool. While college admissions requires plenty of time management and diligent preparation, it was almost too early for some of these girls to work on their essays proper. But, these highly driven underclassmen weren’t going to let me get away scot-free. After a break, I was approached by a freshman with a great question: “What can we [underclassmen] do to prepare for a great college essay now?”
Of course, there are a number of immediate answers that come to mind. Successful writing skills– adept knowledge of writing mechanics, style, and grammar– come with practice and persistence, which students of any and all ages should be conscious of. (It also helps if you follow this blog!) Likewise, choosing an appropriate topic for your essay comes through careful consideration and a thoughtful process of elimination. But, the question posed was begging for an answer that is even deeper than all this; after all, several of the attendees had only just begun high school. How does one really develop great potential topics to begin with? How do you create them? In other words:
How do you become an interesting student?
While we all like the preternatural-prodigy story– where magnetism and intriguing qualities are seemingly innate and one is simply born interesting– these attributes are often discovered and, later, developed and cultivated. Sure, there are some who are born with the knowledge of what they like, the ability to be good at it, and the all-around support system to nurture it, from the beginning. But most have to investigate at least one if not all three of these qualities.These students are no exception. These particular girls are at beginning of their academic careers and are now forming these interests of their own– ones that will likely permeate through to their specialties and professions. But, through careful search, dedicated practice, and active involvement in these interests, they are on their way to not only becoming dedicated, driven students, but genuinely interesting ones at that.
How does this work? Well, here are three steps to do so.
1. Find out what you like (or don’t like).
Finding out what you like is critical to being an interesting student. How?
When you find something you like, you develop a potential genuine interest. These potential interests are kernels of promising growth that can possibly be expanded upon and developed fully into, well, a genuine one. Things you like tend to become things you care about– qualities that will enhance your experience and, in effect, your personality. Genuine interests, in turn, are what make you interesting.
To find what you like, you have to search, to really explore. Keep your ears and eyes open for whatever it is that grabs your attention. And, when they do hold your attention, investigate them! Find out what it is that you like about it and, when you do, keep doing it. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. If you realize after trying it a few times that you don’t like it, don’t fret– narrowing down these potentials is as much a part of this investigative process as it is finding that sweet spot to begin with.
These girls, by participating in this event, have at the very least least started the search process and are actively honing in on what it is they do like, whether it is medicine, engineering, computer science, or robotics (!). These interests are informing their high school experience and, in turn, their own unique personalities, allowing them to differentiate themselves from the rest. Their pursuit of what interests them are what makes them interesting.
2. Stick with it.
Following what I said above, you’re more likely to follow through with something you like than you would with something you don’t. That being said, once you do find something you like, you have to solidify that commitment.
Immersion learning is the best method of learning a language and the same is true for learning a new skill or discipline. Athletes practice during the on- and off-season to keep their minds and bodies in prime shape for competition, year-round and at all times. Likewise, students of every discipline must keep themselves sharp by consistent practice and dedication.Through this kind of persistence, interests become specialties and areas of expertise.
How does this happen? Simply put, people pursue what they like. When you enjoy something, you’re that much likely to remain committed to it. Being immersed in something you like is definitely a lot more pleasurable than being mired in something you don’t.
From this kind of commitment, your personal expertise and knowledge grows– after all, there is a reason that people tend to be good at the things that they happen to like. And, with intimate knowledge comes the ability to communicate freely and confidently about these interests. The ability to relay this interest to others –friends, teachers, admissions counselors, and professors alike– is what makes you interesting to them in the first place.
These students, by their own admission, are completely dedicated to their academic pursuits. They eat, breathe, and sleep math and science. Their attendance clearly spoke of this dedication but I was continually told of their active participation in other areas relating to their individual interests, from building computers for charity organizations to volunteering in projects dedicated to environmental conservation and sustainability. They not only found what they liked, but they involved themselves in everything they could to further themselves within it, and did so tenaciously. And, having done so, they were able to speak confidently about what their passions and drew me in, even as a decidedly “non-math” outsider. Their dogged interest interested me.
3. Cultivate it.
Aside from finding that thing you like and dedicating yourself to it, you have to allow it to grow. This all is a continual process that needs to be fostered by not only you, but by others as well.
Involve your peers in your interests. More likely than not, there will be some sort of club or organization devoted to this recently discovered interest. If there isn’t, then this is an opportunity to make a space for yourself and those like you to join forces– chances remain high that you are not the only one interested in this particular thing, nor will you be the last one to be. Involving others in your interests also creates fertile, creative ground to explore and investigate them further. The best and most creative ideas often come from such collaboration, especially when new territories are concerned. This will also help foster greater dedication; as any fitness nut or otherwise athletic person will tell you, it is easier to retain — and keep!– commitment when others are joined in with you.
The G.O.A.L.S for Girls campers certainly inspired each other– the camp comprised of a competitive pool of girls with similar interests and background, working and learning together for six weeks. Surely, a camp full of high school girls can make for an interesting experience in and of itself (I can definitely attest to that from my own experience, oh-so-long ago) but the opportunities like this to inspire and challenge yourself and others in a fertile environment is critical to the success and longevity of these interests.
Similarly, these interests need to be nurtured by you and those like you, first and foremost, but they also need to be nurtured by others with greater and more expansive knowledge on the subject as well. Aside from securing letters of recommendation in the future, involving teachers, professors, and organizers will also allow you to delve deeper and become especially good at them. Self-teaching can certainly go far but having guidance will help you not only develop your skills even farther, but also cultivate your own interest level, in both the thing itself and in your own “interestingness.” Enhancing your own understanding will doubly enhance your own experience within and outside of this process– thereby make your experience, your personality, and, by extension, you that much more interesting as a whole.
Writing transfer essays can be particularly hard– how do you tell one school why you’re leaving another?
Like “normal” personal statements, your aim is to show how you’re the ideal candidate. But, you also have an additional directive at hand: why you should join yet a different graduating class, as opposed to the one you are already a part of. It then becomes less, “Why X school” and more “Why X school, as opposed to the one you’re in now?”
Regardless of what your reasons may be for leaving, writing generically won’t help you– it’ll only seem as though you’re just trying to get the heck out of Dodge, which doesn’t suit your purpose of getting in.
But, rest assured, dear readers: here are some do’s and don’ts to help you on your way to hopefully brighter, greener pastures.
DO: Talk about your your time at your previous school.
Highlight what was positive about your old school– don’t worry, an admissions counselor won’t judge you for leaving. If you really are hard-pressed to the positive about your experience (good thing you’re transferring!) then talk about how much you have grown– what have you come to realize during your experience at your soon-to-be-old school? Growth does include learning what you really want out of your school experience, and learning what kind of environment or program you prefer to be in.
DON’T: Talk trash about your old school.
Even if the campus sucks, the professors are awful, you live with a crap roommate in a room without heat, don’t diss it. Yes, you may be unhappy with your school experience thus far, but don’t criticize it in your essay– it will only seem negative or even tacky. Talk less about how much the school failed you in whatever way, but talk more about what your needs and wants in your education or ideal campus life.
DO: Talk about how your prospective school will be an ideal fit for you.
“Why do you want to attend this school?” This question certainly sounds familiar, but it can be answered doubly now that you have spent sometime elsewhere. Why does this school appeal to you so much more than your current one? Consider what your prospective school offers, in comparison to your school now– what attracts you the most? Is its campus life? Or its programs of study? Talk about specifics.
DON’T: Mention how you wish you applied there/attended in the first place. (Or, how you wish you were admitted the first time around.)
Allusions to any of these will make you sounding regretful or even bitter, which will only take away from your essay. Through your personal statement, you should aim to sound positive and hopeful, as a promising future student who looks forward to advancing your education. Don’t demean your previous decision (or, worse, the decision of the previous admissions counselor) by presenting them in a bad light– talk instead about what you plan to do in the future.
DO: Talk about what you hope to accomplish at your new school.
When transferring, you have to a do a bit of homework. Investigate what programs are offered and what their campus life is actually like. Consider what their student body is like; what could you bring to the table? If there is a particular program you are interested in, talk about why. If there is a particular professor you want to study under: why, and how come? Then, what could you provide for the department or research team? If you’re interested in athletics, a similar line of questions are also pertinent. Talk about not only why you want to be there, but what you plan to do once you are there– how will you make the most of this school, and how will the school make the most of you?
Whether you’re in undergrad, graduate school, or even post-graduate study, at some point or another, you’ll end up in a course you can’t stand. For whatever reason, you just hate this class– it could be your professor, your fellow students, the course topic, the readings, or even the classroom itself that sucks. Regardless of why it’s awful, you still have to suffer through it and, worse yet, you’ll still have to write a final paper for it.
As I explained in a previous blog post, the goal of a final paper is to demonstrate your full grasp and knowledge of the course and its content to the professor. So, to get over this hatred hump and on your way to writing this dreaded assignment, start thinking of how this course relates to your focus of study, as a whole: how does this course fit into your major or concentration? Graduate students, I’m especially looking at you. If you’re an undergraduate student within a specialized concentration, the same applies to you as well. What outside information can you bring into this class? Are there any overarching themes that can be drawn from other classes you’ve taken within your major track or course of study?
If you’re taking this only because it’s a requirement for your major or, even worse, as a general degree requirement, then consider what stuck out most to you during the class– what interested you the most out of the material? Maybe it was a particular reading or lecture topic that caught your attention, or an idea that has permeated the course material and throughout the course itself. What did you like most and, therefore, can talk about for pages on end?
If you have truly gained nothing out of this course and can’t think of a single thing you liked about it, then go with what you know– what did you understand best out of all the material? What can you explain to the best of your ability?
Ask yourself these questions as part of a bit of self-assessment and carefully consider your answers. If you’re having a bit of trouble coming up with viable answers and ideas, do some free-writing to get yourself going. Appropriate topics come from these considerations; ideas surrounding the arc of the course as well as what you can personally relate to within the material are fodder for good papers.
Of course, if you’re still stuck, talk to your professor or, at the very least, your TA; naturally, they can give you some of the best insight into what they’re looking for. Or, talk to your classmates. Discuss with them what they aim to write their papers about and use that as inspiration. (But, their ideas are meant only as inspiration for your own! Don’t ever, ever cheat.)
Continue to brainstorm and to mull over these concepts until you find a thesis idea you’re comfortable enough with that your professor will want to read and, most importantly, you can write about for pages on end. Remember, your end-goal is to show your full grasp and understanding of the arc of the course. So, taking all this into account and delving into the connections and ties made within the course would fulfill your professor’s expectations or perhaps even go above and beyond them– possibly amounting to some serious brownie points.
Last week, I covered what a diversity statement is and how to decide whether a diversity statement is right for you. Now, for those of you who will be writing one, I will cover how to do it.
Generally speaking, your diversity statement should be written very much like your personal statement. However, the approach you will take will differ slightly.
In your personal statement, you are presenting yourself to the admissions counselor as an ideal candidate for your prospective school. You are to show them how your experience is indicative of your qualities and drive and how these traits are proof of how you’ll succeed, at school and in the future. These experiences can be either personal or professional, but, either way they have to somehow exemplify your abilities as a prospective student.
With your diversity statement, you have to provide yet further examples of your experience, and talk about how these have made you a mature, more diverse person. Meaning, you will have to discuss your personal background and how this has affected you. Some people talk about the diversity statement being akin to an adversity statement, but that’s not necessarily the case– it doesn’t have to necessarily be about obstacles. However, it does have to involve is your personal experience, and how this has given you a different or more diverse perspective than most other students.
Note the marked differences between these two types of statements.
While both the personal statement and diversity statement serve the same purpose– to shed more light on your personality for the admissions committee– they differ in the manner in which they do that.
Like any writing task, you should start with a brainstorming session. However, the diversity statement can be much more, well, personal than the personal statement– as such, your brainstorming should naturally be different along these lines as well. In last week’s post, I wrote some basic questions you should ask yourself when considering whether to write a diversity statement or not. Your brainstorming should stem from the answers from these questions.
Once you have narrowed it down to one– or even a few– topic ideas, start outlining. The only way to test drive the solidity of a possible argument is to outline it; if you can come up with enough material to develop your argument from start to finish, think about it a bit further and consider using this as a viable topic. If you find yourself scrambling to fill out this outline, then drop it.
Because of the often deeply personal nature of diversity statements, you will have to spend a fair amount of time on this. Granted, the word-count for a diversity statement is not nearly as much as a personal statement. (Personal statements should be about 2 pages, double-spaced with reasonable font and margin sizes, while diversity statement should be about a page, page and a half, tops.) However, the diversity statement does needs extra consideration– certainly more thought than, say, an addendum. Chances are, your diversity statement will be dealing with some pretty sensitive issues. Take time and precaution with how you treat your topic, as failing to do so can turn an otherwise compelling and moving statement into something trivial or, even worse, bad.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- …be antagonistic. Being critical of greater social and cultural forces is one thing, but using your diversity statement as a soapbox is another.
- …throw yourself a pity party. Admissions counselors want to see how you’ve matured and grown. Don’t trivialize yourself by coming off as if you’re complaining or whining.
- …blame others. Instead of pointing fingers at who or what may have complicated your background, talk about how these things have changed you for the better. Playing the blame game will only make you seem immature and close-minded.
- …talk about “would have, should have, could have”. Your life, up to this point, is what it is. Take ownership of that, and talk about the past in how it reflects your present and your future, but don’t talk about rewriting anything. Talking about ” what if”s can be a waste of time and, in this case, precious word-count.
- …talk about how your life has changed because of your experience. Admissions counselors want to know the level of maturity and self-confidence you will bring to the admitted class but they also want to know how you have grown to achieve that. Shed light on how you’ve grown and developed into the person you are now, at the precipice of entering into a new degree-track.
- …use some humor, but tastefully. You can have a healthy sense of humor about your background– it doesn’t have to be all gloom-and-doom. However, don’t be crass, crude, or morbid. That can be a party and application killer. So, don’t be that guy.
- …talk about the positive aspects of your experience. What good came from your diverse background? What are you grateful for?
- …draw upon your personal statement or letters of recommendation. If there is a common tie between your career goals and what you talk about in your diversity statement, then make that connection. Don’t be afraid to be thematic in your application, stemming connections and ties across your diversity statement, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and even addenda. It would only help to make your application a more solid package.
Now that applications are fully underway, I’ve received tons of questions about supplemental essays.. Applications call for more than just a personal statement— often, a secondary “Why [insert school name]?” also known as a “Why X” essay, may be included. Also, students may need to include an addendum.
Another type of supplemental essay that is the diversity statement. I describe in further detail how to write a successful diversity statement in a later post but, first, let’s break down what a diversity statement actually is.
Many of you already have the right idea: that it’s an essay that explains your diverse background or experience. But, there is some confusion after that.
You don’t have to an Under-Represented Minority (or, URM) to write one. There is a common misconception that a diversity statement should be about only ethnicity or race. It’s not. A diverse experience can be related to, yes, ethnicity and race, but it can also relate to your sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, religious belief, or age. It is more than just the color of your skin; it is about any circumstances or experiences that have made you outside the mainstream, different from the rest of the applicant pool. This also applies to your home life or household as well– whether you grew up in a non-English speaking household, an adoptive home, or any otherwise “non-traditional” household.
It’s up to you to decide what your diverse experience is. Again, what constitutes diversity is often misunderstood, so only you can be the best judge of that. But, here are some questions for you to consider, when deciding whether you should write one or not:
- Did you have a diverse experience, background, or upbringing?
- Does this background make you genuinely different and more diverse than others?
- Did these experiences allow you to have a different perspective?
- How has this diverse perspective changed your outlook? Your career and life goals?
- How will this experience help diversify the student body? What about your experience can you bring to the table as part of the admitting class?
Carefully consider these questions. Now, there is one more important factor you must consider as well.
As an applicant, you want your application to be as competitive as possible. One of the ways to do so is to possibly include a diversity statement in your application packet. After all, you would not considering adding yet another essay on top of a long and arduous process if that was not the case. I’m glad you’re a kind of achiever that is willing to do the extra work, but, as an optional essay, there is a risk.
Diversity statements are not mandatory. As such, not including this optional essay will not detract from your application. Your application packet– the application itself, test scores, letters of recommendation, personal statement– can very well get you into the school that you want. It is perfectly possible for applicants to get in with only these items and plenty of applicants before you have gotten in without any supplementation or additional materials at all. The admissions package is designed to, at its barest bones, to do allow admittance– that’s why they are the required parts of the application over others.
A supplemental essay, by definition, is supposed to do exactly that– to supplement your application. It’s an opportunity for you to present yet another side to your personality to the admissions committee. And, it’s an opportunity for the admissions counselor to get to know you further and possibly find more reasons to admit you.
If your essay is well written, well-composed, and truly compelling, it will do all these things. However, if your essay is not, then you risk taking away from your own application. By presenting additional information, you’re giving them more to look at which, as I said, can work to your advantage. But, in doing so, you’re also giving them more written material to judge you on and, by nature, giving yourself more room for error.
This is why you must be particularly selective and careful with your decision. Just as you have to be selective with your recommenders, your statement topic, and your methods of LSAT studying, you also must be selective in the supplemental materials you provide.
If, when considering all these factors I’ve listed, you still feel uncomfortable or unsure, then don’t do it. You won’t lose out by not doing a diversity statement, but you can lose out by doing a bad one. If you find that you’re forcing yourself to write one, that awkwardness will be evident to the admissions counselor. Trust me– they look at up to thousands of these kinds of essays and forced, awkward writing is easy to pinpoint and with good accuracy, too.
I’m not trying to scare you, I promise. However, I do want you to be realistic– don’t write a diversity statement just to write one. Write one because, as a diverse person or one who can bring diversity to your prospective schools, you have something strong and meaningful to say. If you feel that you do and feel comfortable with the material enough to write about it, then by all means do so. This essay is supposed to serve not only as a supplement but as a complement to your application package. If you treat it as such and write a genuine, well-meaning essay, then it will.
If, at the end of this exercise, you have decided that a diversity statement is the right choice for you, then check out my post on how to write one.
Steve Schwartz of LSAT Blog was kind enough to interview me earlier this week. In our interview, we discussed burnout (and how to fight it), diversity statements, and addenda.
Here is an excerpt from our interview:
2. Now, about supplemental essays. What do you tell your students about writing diversity statements?
There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the diversity statement. Two of those are that:
1. Diversity statements is only for underrepresented minorities (URMs)
2. Diversity statements are mandatory.
Both of these statements are far from correct.
You don’t have to be an underrepresented minority to write a diversity statement. Similarly, diversity statements are not adversity statements, either. Anyone who feels that their background or upbringing has allowed them to have a more diverse experience can write one. This also goes for anyone who feels that, by being part of the representative admitted class, will bring diversity to the student body of their prospective school.
That being said, you don’t have to write a diversity statement. Yes, it can be a valuable asset to your application package, but it’s not mandatory and, therefore, isn’t necessary. If you are considering writing a diversity statement, be sure that you have something well-argued and genuinely compelling to say; it’s better to submit your application “as is” with its required materials than to submit an extra essay that is questionable or, worse, written poorly.
So, you’ve been working on your personal statement. You’ve brainstormed, you’ve outlined, You might even be done with your first draft. But… you’re not getting anywhere.
It’s okay if you feel a little stuck– it happens to everyone. And, people get stuck at all different points of their statement-writing process. So, I’ve written this helpful guide-series that will show you how to get unstuck, whether you haven’t chosen a topic, are hammering out your first draft, or trying to nail down your final draft. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be covering different points of typical “stickiness” and how to get unstuck from them.
If you’re stuck…. and you don’t have a topic yet:
If you’re in the very beginning stages of just formulating your topic, it’s best if you start with some brainstorming or outlining before beginning your draft. Even if you do have a topic, it’s often helpful to still brainstorm to help tweak your topic and refresh your writing muscles (and your mind).
Start thinking about how your experiences have molded and shaped you. How did your experiences during undergrad shape your maturity and understanding? If you’ve been out of school for a while, how did your later positions shape you? What sort of trajectory has your life taken thus far? What has brought you to this point? Consider your answers– how will these affect you in the future, as a law student? As a working attorney?
I’ve posed these questions to coax out a potential argument about,the wealth of material you have scattered in your resume and in your mind. The problem may well be that you have so much to choose from, it’s overwhelming. I know the temptation exists to start to work on a draft right away and, if you really feel comfortable doing this, try. However, think about what I’ve just asked here while you brainstorm– just start writing down what comes to mind in a brief, bulleted list, without the pressure of putting it into a formal draft. Think a bit and see if you can come up. Write down everything you come up with; your material, somehow, has to directly relate to you and your experience.
Then, read over and evaluate what you came up with. See how you can make this all work, and how this relates to you. Do you feel comfortable with it? Can you take it further? You may end up going through many cycles of the above process- twice, three times, you name it. Regardless of how many times you brainstorm, it’s important that you do it. By brainstorming and even brainstorming repeatedly, you will inevitably come up with something good, something you can work with, and something you can write about well.
Next week, I’ll be covering how to get unstuck when writing your first draft, part 2.
The admissions cycle is just about to begin and questions have already been rolling in. So, to help you navigate this often nerve-racking time, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most common do’s and don’ts for writing effective, successful admissions essays.
DON’T: Submit your statement without working on at least a couple drafts of it first. Edit your work. Even if you think your first (or even second) draft is a masterpiece — put it down and look at it again tomorrow. You are indeed your worst critic, but don’t put it off until the last minute. Submitting your first draft of anything will only amount to lots of regret, I promise. Even the most stellar students can get dinged over a poorly written statement. So, don’t be that guy.
DO: Show it to someone else. When writing, it’s very easy to miss even the biggest mistakes. Showing it to an editor, a professor, an advisor, or even a friend or colleague, can improve your essay enormously– they will often see errors that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. If you live on a deserted island or cave and really can’t find a single reliable person to read it for you, then read it out loud to yourself. Yes, you might feel weird doing it but, in actuality, reading aloud will often reveal mistakes in grammar and sentence structure are often not immediately obvious. While having someone else look over your work is the most advisable option, reading it out loud is still a much better option than not doing any of it at all.
DON’T: Be afraid to talk about yourself. As I’ve said in a previous post, your essay is the only chance an admissions counselor will have, outside of an interview, to see your true strengths and qualities as how you choose to showcase them. Given this, your job is to use your essay to present yourself and your qualities that would otherwise not be seen in your application. Don’t be afraid to allow the attractive aspects of your personality to show through; a compelling essay can mean all the difference between a ‘no’ and a ‘maybe’ or even a ‘yes’.
DO: Write about your traits and aspirations confidently. As I’ve discussed numerous times before, admissions counselors are searching for candidates who are not only studious but also mature and well-adjusted. They want to know that you’re ready for this next step and, to prove that you are, writing about yourself confidently is necessary. Never forget that your essay is, essentially, a logical argument (it is in fact a statement) so confidence in your own abilities and aptitude is key to making it effective.
DON’T: Write an overly general “Why X” essay just so you can reuse it. While it would certainly make your life easier, it would not make your application look any better. Admissions counselors go through thousands upon thousands of essays each year and many of them have been doing it for quite some time. So, their BS-detectors are pretty finely tuned, particularly to glossed-over generalizations that only vaguely suggest their schools. If there’s no way you have time to write an individually tailored “Why X” essay, then I would definitely suggest writing your essay on another topic. If a “Why X” essay is mandatory, then make the effort. You don’t want to risk being rejected for being lazy.
DO: Investigate what each school you’re applying to has to offer, and know why you want to go there, whether you’re writing a “Why X” essay or not. Regardless of why you’re applying to a particular school– because of its reputation, athletics, location, or programs offered– you need to have identifiable (and reasonable) grounds as to why you’d want to be there. Do your research. Even if you’re applying there as a “safety”, consider why are you choosing this school over any others. Of course, be sure to present your reasons with restraint– for instance, it’s one thing to be appreciative of a school’s Greek life but another to say you’re looking to get into a party school.
DON’T: Regurgitate your resume. Your statement can always include examples of work, school, and life experiences to illustrate just how serious, hardworking, and dedicated you are. However, this does not mean you can list experiences that are not relevant to your statement topic, just for the sake of including them. Your application already includes your resume, so there’s no need to list every position or internship held even if it doesn’t fit. If there’s a particular position or experience that you absolutely must talk about that you can’t seem to work into your statement, then consider reworking your topic so you can.
DO: Tell a story that illustrates your strengths, maturity, and talents. Following what I said above, it doesn’t have to include every position you’ve served or award you’ve received. Your statement can be an anecdote: a (small!) snippet of your life story, or a description of one particular experience you’ve had in school or work that is, yes, in your resume. Or, in the alternative, your statement can describe your work and school experiences if they are all part of a master plan to get you to this point. Regardless of how you choose to go about it, your statement should be one solid, cohesive argument that flows all the way through.
Recently, I’ve been interviewed by Steve Schwartz of the LSAT Blog.
The following is an excerpt from our interview:
3. How much time should one spend revising a personal statement, and how can one tell when it’s *finished*?
It’s impossible to set a firm amount of time and have that work for everyone. Everyone works at different speeds and everyone has different amounts of free time available to them. So, whether it’s one month or an entire application cycle (about four to five months), one has to allot enough time to write multiple drafts and to revise and review appropriately. It’s also important to be honest with yourself about how much time you actually have, and to be realistic with your goals. Rushing should NEVER be an option.
You can read the rest of our interview here.