5 Tips to Get Started on Your Personal Essay

Starting anything new is hard – the first day of a new school year, a new class, getting in shape.  We tend to put these things off, and they linger and linger. Add to that the pressure of wanting it to be “perfect” (which nothing is!), and sitting down to write the personal essay for the college application can seem pretty daunting!  

To help you calm those fears, here are 5 tips on how to approach this looming, often intimidating, yet very critical part of your college application:

1. Use a timer

Use the timer on your phone and set it to 10 minutes.  Sit down in a quiet place with no distractions--nothing in front of you but a notebook page and pen or a blank screen (I prefer pen and paper).  Set the timer and for 10 minutes jot down any and all topics that are meaningful in your life.  What matters to you?  What experiences, people, places, trips, jobs, relationships, classes, neighbors, challenges, highlights, or important moments in your life come to mind?  Write down anything at all.  This is a simple list, just for you, of all the meaningful moments in your life.  Don’t overthink it, and don’t stop writing.

Here’s an example list:

  • Job at ice cream store last summer
  • Learning to play tennis
  • The big tennis championship
  • That awful calculus class
  • Friendship with Bob
  • Riding the school bus for 8 years
  • Summer car trips with the family
  • Learning to fish with Grandpa
  • Losing the dog
  • Passion for violin
  • Playing cards every Sunday with my cousins
  • Struggles with ADD
  • The internship at the library
  • Learning to drive
  • Becoming a vegetarian
  • Lifeguarding
  • Trip to Mexico

2. Read the questions

Now that you have all of your meaningful moments, take a break (I like ice cream!) and then look over the list of Common Application essay questions carefully.  Using a pen or highlighter, mark the words that you want to be sure to fully answer in each question.  Be sure each question is really clear.  If you can, try paraphrasing each question in your own words to be sure it’s 100% clear what they are asking.

Then, narrow down.  Which question feels the most YOU—the most real, honest, interesting, and relates directly to something you have thought about and experienced?  Which question actually excites you?  

The key that applicants often forget is that you need to be EXCITED about something to write well about it.  Instead of focusing on what you think “they” want to hear, focus on what YOU WANT TO WRITE ABOUT.  Passion for a subject shows, and the college admission folks will be much more interested in your essay if they can tell that you actually care about the topic.

3. The 15-minute rough, rough draft

Anyone who sits down to write always faces the scary first few moments of staring at the blank computer screen or notebook page.  Even for published writers, the beginning can be very scary. Suddenly, laundry and dirty dishes seem appealing. Sound familiar?  Well, here’s some simple advice:

DON’T DO THE DISHES.

STAY PUT.

AND SET A TIMER FOR 15 MINUTES.

MOST IMPORTANT…

WRITE SOMETHING – ANYTHING – DOWN UNTIL THE TIMER GOES OFF.  

Many writers start the day with what can be thought of as “brain dump.”  We just WRITE, anything, for 15 minutes. We whine, we complain, we worry about why we can’t write.  We vent onto the page about our annoying homework assignment, our mother, our toothache. It may not be Shakespeare or Harry Potter, but it’s WRITING.  And no one will see it.    

Let’s think for a moment about exercise.  If you haven’t been to a gym in years and decide to run a 10k race next month, what do you do first?  Unless you want to pull a muscle or worse, you start slow.  You get off the couch and jog around the block a few times (and, in my case, reward yourself with an ice cream cone afterwards. Are we seeing the ice cream theme?).  Then, you might try for a mile, or two. You jog, you stretch, and you walk. You’re sore, but the next day you do it again.  As we all know, you are MUCH more likely to succeed in the race if you warm up, practice, and do several trial runs to prepare.  

Writing works in exactly the same way. The 15-minute rough draft is a simple warm up.  It’s a way to stretch the muscles, to try to remember how to think in sentences on the page.  Some practice runs, nice and easy, where no one will see that you’re so out of breath you can’t even say hi. This is the beauty of the rough draft.  It’s the draft no one will see but you. It’s the messy, sloppy draft that lets you remember what it feels like to jog in place a bit.  It helps you remember what your voice sounds like, and most importantly, why it’s unique.

So, shut off the phone, Instagram, and Snapchat, and set an alarm for 15 minutes.  Then ask yourself: What do I care about?  What do I enjoy doing?  What’s important to me?  

And write.  

4. Read some sample essays

Now, some people don’t like looking at other writing when they’re trying to get started on their own.  But I think that taking a close look at a few (say, 3-5?) essays that have helped students get into college can be really helpful.  It helps to see what you like about their essays (Hey, I didn’t know I could start with a scene with dialogue between my sister and me!  Hey, I didn’t know I could be funny!  Hey, I didn’t know I could use the word “I” so much!), and, just as important, what you don’t (Her style was confusing. Why did he drone on for so long about loving bagels?  His sentences were too long and wordy for me.).

Here’s a suggestion: Google the phrase “Essays That Worked” and you’ll discover a treasure trove of college admission sites that actually share just that: essays that made such an impression on the admission reviewer that the student was accepted. Remember, these are just ideas as to how other people wrote theirs.  You do NOT have to write like them to get into college!  It can just be helpful to see the form, the length, and the structure, of how other people approached this task.

5) Sound like you

Dictionary definitions, the thesaurus, lots of quotes from famous people, ideas that you think you should be thinking about but really couldn’t care less about, experiences you have had that seem “important” or “impressive” but really didn’t even affect you that much---THROW IT ALL OUT for this assignment.  

I know, it’s so hard! You have spent years doing exactly what teachers want you to do to get the A – and now you just need to LET GO of all that and simply sound like YOU but this is exactly what’s required in the personal essay.  It’s a chance, in just a few paragraphs, to let the admissions committee hear on the page who you are: your voice, your personality, your strengths, your challenges, your beliefs, your SELF.  Be honest about the time you tried out for the team and weren’t sure you’d make it, or would even want to play if you did. It’s ok to have conflicting feelings in a personal essay—in fact, it makes it seem more real, more human, and more compelling.

REMEMBER: these admissions folks are people, too!  They are tired, and have colds, and are craving chocolate, and are facing HUGE STACKS of endless essays, many of which are boring, repetitive and don’t sound genuine.  What do they want to read in the very few minutes they have to devote to your essay?

Something real, written by a teenager, in his/her own voice

Something honest

Something interesting, that the writer obviously cares about a lot

Something that sounds like a person they might like to meet

Remember: Be yourself on the page, and it will never fail you. Good luck!