The College Application Essay Is Easy.
You can't spell essay without "easy." Writing a personal statement is not hard. Sorry. It's just not, no matter what hype or hullabaloo suggesting otherwise. Still, it's likely that your student will face writer's block. We need to help students past that.
If you're a parent looking to reassure your student that, "Yes, you CAN write the application essay," then this post is for you. After you finish reading this post, you'll have a good overview of what to write about and how to write about it. And to emphasize how uncomplicated this all really is, I'll show you with emoji.
Any Motivated Student Can Write a Great Essay.
If your student can hold a conversation with you about her life, then she can write about her life, too.
The 1st Barrier Is "What to Write."
The first barrier to writing the essay is "I don't know what to write." We've all been there.
The Problem Is Fear.
Students are afraid. Afraid they don't have anything special to say. Afraid they can't write something "good enough." Afraid they will look dumb. We were there, too. Do we remember? Being on the cusp of adulthood, moments of confidence chasing moments of doubt, moments of doubt chasing moments of confidence.
One Solution is Considering 5 Everyday Topics.
One key to help our students get past their "what to write" fear is to remind them that their topic is probably hiding in plain sight. Most of my students end up writing about 1 of 5 topics. No these are not the only possible topics, and no, sorry, these are not "secret" topics, and no, I would never say my students' essays on these topics "got them in" anywhere. I would just say these essays haven't kept my students out of college, including the colleges everyone considers "elite." These are just some topics I've seen work.
Topic #1: People
Topic #1 is people. The smiley emoji is there to remind you that we all have people that matter to us. If there's a relationship that has been especially influential in your student's life, that might be a good starting point for a topic, especially if the relationship involves conflict. (Conflict is interesting!)
Topic #2: Pivot
Topic #2 is pivot. The upward trend emoji is there to remind you that your student might have a pivot in her life. By pivot, I mean a turning point, a defining moment. Not every student has this. But if a student does, writing about it often gives colleges deeper insight into the student's character and values.
Topic #3: Passion
Topic #3 is passion. The heart emoji -- what else could it mean, except passion? Yes, passion is an overused term. And I'm not suggesting the student should come out and say "this is my passion." However, if the student has a driving interest, including an academic interest, it's great to explore how that came to be, especially when this passion is unusual. (And since so many students discount their own passions, it's up to us to slow them down and say, "Actually, this is not as common as you're making it seem.")
Topic #4: Process
Topic #4 is process. The clipboard emoji is there to remind you that we are all experts in or sticklers for something. What's something that your student has to do a certain way -- the "right" way, every time? Where we're willing to demand perfection in says a lot about who we are.
Topic #5: Purpose
Topic #5 is purpose. The world emoji is there to remind you that some students already have clear ideas about how they will change the world. If your student is thinking about "impact" or "making a difference," then there are worse essay starting points than talking about how and when this desire arose. (But please...don't let your student use those worn out "impact" or "making a difference" phrases in the essay!)
The 2nd Barrier Is "How to Write."
Now that we've covered 5 possible topics (yes, of course there are more -- but these 5 are a start when our goal is to reassure the student) to get past the "what to write" barrier, we face the "how to write" barrier.
The Problem Is "Thought Verbs."
The biggest problem in "how to write" is that students rely too much on verbs about what's going on inside their heads: thought, wanted, felt, realized, understood, and decided, to name a few. (For more discussion, please refer to my post about What Immediacy Is and Why Your Essay Needs It.) The intent behind these abstract "thought verbs" -- help the reader understand me by bringing the reader inside my head. But the effect is bad; thought verbs come across as generic. Chances are, what your student thinks / feels / wants is not that different from what the next student thinks / feels / wants.
One Solution Is 5 Tips for Vivid Writing.
One key to getting students past the thought verbs problem is to remind them of 5 simple tips to make their writing pop. Don't be mad at how simple they are. I think I learned most of them in elementary school when I had to write a "news report" that talked about who, what, when, where, and why. As I mentioned above, this post is not for people who want to over-complicate the essay.
Tip #1: Don't Be Alone.
Tip #1 is "Don't be alone." When you see these two strange dancing people, remember: your student shouldn't be alone in the essay. The student should star in the essay, but she shouldn't be the only character (fascinating though she assuredly is). When your student's essay has multiple characters, there is less chance your student will dwell on those abstract, generic thoughts. Also, there is more chance your student will write about conflict, which is more interesting. (I'm 99% sure anything you are binge-watching on Netflix is chock-full of conflict.)
Tip #2: Write about Images.
Tip #2 is "Write about images." The see-no-evil monkey reminds you of what you saw: Images, images, images.
Tip #3: Write about Sounds.
Tip #3 is "Write about sounds." The hear-no-evil monkey reminds you of what you heard: Sounds, sounds, sounds.
Tip #3: Write about Words.
Tip #4 is "Write about words." The speak-no-evil monkey reminds you of what you said and heard: "Words, words, words."
Tip #5: Write about Actions.
Tip #5 is "Write about actions." The clapper board reminds you of what you and others did: "Action, action, action!"
To the Finish Line...
Naturally, any proposed solution about getting your student's essay across the finish line depends on assumptions about the problem to be solved. If you disagree with my assumptions about the problem, you'll likely disagree with my solutions. I don't see the "what to write" problem isn't a technical problem. We can't solve it with by defining "story," discussing story structures, or explaining the difference between narrative and exposition.
Fundamentally, the "what to write" problem is an emotional problem. It's a problem of fear. The student fears that she has nothing special to say. If we don't help our students past that fear, all the theory in the world about stories is useless. To alleviate my students' "what to write" fear, I first focus them on 5 everyday topics: people, pivot, passion, process, and purpose. (It was very important to me that these were alliterative, as we all know that alliteration is the #1 indicator of quality of thought.)
Though the "what to write" problem is more emotional than technical, the "how to write" problem is certainly technical. In its simplest form, the solution is "Write about what happened outside your head, not inside your head." The 5 writing tips I listed all have the same focus: external details. Bring other characters into your story, and write about images, sounds, words, and actions. Conceptually, it's all simple. But getting students to slow down and figure out how to replace those "I thought" sentences with external details -- that is a task that will inevitably elicit the dreaded "Do I have to?" question. (My response: "Only if you want to go to college!" Just kidding. I don't always say that.)
Let me end with a practical note. "What to write" and "how to write" are two distinct phases of the writing process for my students. I don't try to have the students do both at once. In the first phase, the "what to write" phase, I am encouraging the student to expand on ideas. I take the pressure off by reassuring the student that any of these 5 topics (or countless others) will work. If there's even a 10% chance the student will want to write about it, I say, "Go ahead!" (It's impossible to compare topics in the abstract, anyway; they must be typed out first.) When I see a first or second draft, it's all questions and encouragement: "Tell me more!"
Only when the student says (and I believe), "I really can't think of anything else to say" do I turn to the second phase, the "how to write" phase. This is when I torment the student by circling or highlighting all those thought / felt / wanted types of verbs, pushing her to replace the internal processes with external details. I usually offer a slight reprieve, or a compromise -- you can have a couple "thought" sentences, but push them to the conclusion to explain the significance of all those images, sounds, words, and actions you just gave us.
You see, it's all very simple!
Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.