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Don't be afraid to get creative: Advice for writing a memorable personal essay
January 9, 2018
Chloe Rybicki-Kler

This article has been updated from a post originally published Nov. 15, 2016.

By the time this article reaches you, I will have gone through four opening statements, discarded three complete drafts, reworked two outlines, and ruminated on its purpose for one sleepless night.

No amount of practice or preparation will alter the long and occasionally haphazard process of drafting and revision that my work will undergo, and in fact experience has only lengthened and complicated the system by which I miraculously produce each article.

Each day that I sit down to write I experience the same vague hesitation, unsure what to ask of this new document - and what it will ask of me.

College essays only accentuate this uncertainty, and the reason is simple: these essays are blank slates handed to us at a time when everything else around us - school, home, friends, our own identities - is suddenly a blank slate, too. The good news is that personal statements are not as paradoxical as they appear to be.

If these essays are approached as a welcome respite from the hailstorm of academic and personal pressures, and as an opportunity to be alone with and learn a little more about ourselves, then we are already halfway through the hardest part: getting started.

Here are a few strategies to help you do everything from brainstorming to drafting and editing an outstanding college essay:

A Little Perspective

Starting a draft and maintaining momentum are two of the most difficult aspects of writing any essay, personal or otherwise, because it can be easy to fall into “should” thinking (I should say this, I should have done that) and to focus more on what you think colleges want to hear than demonstrating your own unique qualities and perspectives.

The college essay is very a personal document, and without some internal investment the writing will begin to feel like a chore, and that sense of drudgery will show through in your writing.

There are many ways to bring life to your essays, however, especially if you are used to talking about yourself only in academic terms:

  1. Change your perspective. Can you use this personal statement as an opportunity for some alone-time, to put away your other responsibilities for a little while and appreciate devoting yourself to a single task? Can you view this not as another opportunity to mess up but as an occasion to fill in or make up for any other part of the application you are uncertain about?
     

  2. Flex your critical thinking muscles. Personal statements are an occasion to demonstrate an ability to identify issues, pose good questions, and solve problems. To this end, these essays can be an important place to show social awareness and a genuine interest and engagement in world affairs. Whether you have kept up with the news on teacher wages or have lunchtime discussions with friends about public policy, we want to hear what you think and why. And note: application essays are not glorified resumes: you do not need to trek around the world to have informed opinions about global affairs. Read the news, look a little closer at your own neighborhood, and try questioning the status quo.
     
  3. Don’t be afraid to get creative! The application essay is very much like a short story, where you just happen to play both author and main character. If you find yourself at a loss for ideas, pick a real setting from your life, place yourself in it, and see where the writing takes you. Often, it is in the most mundane places that we learn something about ourselves. What are you like at the breakfast table? What do you think about when you’re waiting in line? How do you feel during those few seconds that you unlock your locker at the end of the day? You should be analytical and your story should have a point, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be descriptive, too! Creative innovation is another great way to demonstrate your critical thinking skills for your readers.
     
  4. Be yourself. Obvious perhaps, but also deceptively difficult to accomplish without some forethought. Application essays are one of the rare platforms whereon you can and should display talents that are not typically valued by the educational system. Are you excellent at tying knots? Are you a champion of anagrams? Are you exceptionally compassionate or display calm under pressure? Start a list and select a few qualities that you are especially proud of to explore, and maybe you will learn something new about yourself.

The Nitty-Gritty: Pointers for Drafting and Revision

When it finally comes to translating your ideas into words, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  1. Create a productive space. This means being comfortable, but not Netflix-comfortable. Omit music and distractions, and if possible leave your phone in another room. If the urge to check devices is overwhelming, start by limiting yourself to checks every 15 minutes, then 30, then 60, until you get into a comfortable pattern of writing. Feel free to move around as needed and be sure to enforce a 10-minute standing period between 60- or 90-minute sessions of writing (just don’t check your email or social media during these breaks).
     
  2. Set a schedule. Look at your calendar and make deadlines for yourself, and make sure that there is someone else to hold you accountable. Select one or two objective readers and give yourself a full 24-48 hours (but no more) between complete drafts so that you can evaluate your work with fresh eyes, too.
     
  3. Reverse outline. When in doubt (and especially if you have elected to free-write your first draft), try making an outline of your paper based on what you think you have said and then write an outline of your work based on what you have actually said. This practice has the dual benefit of letting you check whether your ideas are actually being expressed the way you want them to and giving you an outline of what you’ve actually written that can be used to track your progress and quickly identify any holes in your argument.
     
  4. Write your first draft by hand. This process has many benefits: working on paper rather than in front of a computer removes some of the pressure of writing for a collegiate audience and should help keep your tone from sounding too forced. Try to think of it more as journaling than writing an essay - the goal of the handwritten drafts is to get ideas onto paper in whatever form they come (drawings and diagrams included!) than to commit yourself to a final idea. While you should take care not to write too conversationally, writing by hand is an excellent way to foster your own voice and prevent your prose from sounding too stiff. More importantly, this practice limits distractions and forces you to slow down your thought process as you write, which can result in clearer and more coherent ideas than typing (which can start to become mindless after a while).

The most important thing to keep in mind is that writing your college application essays will require a lot of work, but they will also be a rewarding and affirming undertaking.

So keep calm, keep focused, and have fun!

For more writing-related tips and resources, visit the Sweetland Center for Writing at lsa.umich.edu/sweetland

Chloe Rybicki-Kler

is a peer writing consultant in the University of Michigan's Sweetland Center for Writing and a senior studying biochemistry and English.