Tag Archives: topic formulation
The personal statement is an elusive animal; nearly every school in existence requires one and, yet, it is one of the most confusing, difficult parts of an application to get down. My previous posts cover tips on how to choose an admissions essay topic as well as some other tips on writing a successful application essay. Many of my admissions students come to me in the very beginning stages of their statements– the “I don’t even know where to begin” phase.
Much of this panic stems from approaching the personal statement off-kilter, where you are both overwhelmed by the task at hand and yet shortsighted to the exact scope of what the personal statement really is.
The one of the best way to consider your personal statement is to think of it in terms of marketing– specifically, branding. Whole programs are devoted to branding and brand management, so I won’t go into it too deeply here. For this purpose, however, here’s a teeny bit of Advertising 101:
There are thousands of products out there, many of which do the same things. For every item, device, or product, there are millions more like it, that do more or less the same thing, cost about the same, and are available at the same places. But why do people choose one product over another? Why iPhone over Android? Mercedes over BMW? Dasani water over Aquafina? Yes, there are subtle differences– functionality, appearance, and taste, to name some basic ones. But, these all do essentially the same things in terms of their abilities to communicate, transport, and quench thirst. As such, don’t have any true, fundamental differences. Yet, there are perceived differences, and those who are looking at their screens incredulously at what I just said (“Of course the iPhone/Android is better!”) are proving my point.
Effective branding has made these differences, as nuanced as they are, seem huge. One is simply cooler than the other. One is sleeker, faster, sexier. Another is purer, cleaner, more refreshing. Branding, done successfully, even allows for its products and their users to have their own “air” about them– for instance, Mac users are intrinsically different from PC users. Effective advertising campaigns allow you to acquire these ‘facts’ without having to second-guess them. And, all things (including price) being equal, when at Best Buy, the dealership, or the grocery store, you will inevitably base your decisions upon them.
So, how does this relate to you?
Every application cycle, admissions counselors search for students to fill a set amount of seats. For each applicant there are thousands more, all of whom would be doing the same thing upon admission– attending that particular school for a number of years and earning a degree. So, what differentiates you from other applicants?
Granted, hard factors like your GPA or test scores can automatically do this for you. Just as how cars are differentiated from each other in terms of class and price point, your GPA and/or test scores can differentiate you from other students, which is an unfortunate, harsh truth. However, regardless of whatever place or ranking you might have in terms of these factors, there will always be another student with very similar if not the same numbers. So, whether you have a 2.0 or a 4.0, or scored at the lowest or highest percentile, there will be another person with the same stats as you, standing in consideration for the same seat. Your test scores and GPA are hard data; like your name and date of birth, you can’t change or fudge those in your application (fudging is definitely not encouraged, by the way). However, should those things be equal (which will be, at some point), these differences will become more nuanced and depend almost solely on your personal statement. This is where the principles of branding come in.
Your personal statement should be used as your own personal advertisement, to develop and cultivate the persona you want admissions counselors to have of you. With the personal statement, you are asked to develop and market your brand, to push and sell your product– which is yourself. Standing out in a sea of similar applicants is possible with the right form of branding; yet, given the exploding rates of enrollment in education across the board, it is now more important than ever to do so.
Your personal statement is one of the only malleable, changeable parts of your application or your “package”*. While you can’t necessarily change what your GPA and test score is, you can change how you are perceived through your statement. You can single-handedly control how an admissions counselor perceives you, as an applicant and future student. Your essay is the only aspect of your application where an admissions counselor can fully grasp your personality, your aims, your maturity, and, most importantly, your voice.
To rethink your personal statement as a form of branding will help you discover ways to showcase your personality in ways that will hold the admissions counselor’s attention, your most important goal. So, use your 500 words wisely and, most importantly, compellingly. The whole application process is, after all, an exercise in persuasion so that they, the consumer, can choose you over the rest.
*Yes, I said “your package”. Go ahead, laugh.
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.
Final papers are rarely fun assignments. This much is true.
But, it doesn’t have to be so painful to pick a final thesis topic.
Professors typically assign final papers to round out their syllabi and to give more chances to make up for missed assignments and midterm exams. But, most importantly, they do so to get a full grasp of what you have learned and truly gleaned from their course. It goes beyond making sure that you did the readings and paid attention to lecture; it’s to see if you, as a student, really understand what the class was about, why the course is important and how that is. Basically, your professor wants to see that you really understand the coursework, curriculum, and, really, the whole point of the class.
You should see right away why the above should be considered first and foremost when thinking of possible thesis topics: your paper should address what your professor is looking for. Of course, don’t confuse this with just regurgitating notes from lecture and the reading; you have to show that you’ve truly digested the material and understand it.
First, evaluate the curriculum and what was covered during the course. Think as broadly as possible, and look for themes that run through the entirety of the curriculum; what kind of connections can you make between all the readings assigned and the main points of lecture? These themes and connections– the scope of the course– are the “meat and potatoes”, if you will, of what your thesis should be about or, at the very least, should resonate with your professor when reading it.
Regardless of what your topic ends up being, be sure to incorporate these themes into your work. Not only will it make your professor happy, but it will also make your paper that much more comprehensive and well-rounded.