Since it’s the middle of college application season, I’m going to put on my Sway Essay hat this week and offer some tips to those of you wading through it.
I happen to know it’s not an especially fun time. Sure, it leads to excitement, but it sure isn’t exciting yet. Instead it’s just stressful and overwhelming.
I’ve worked with dozens of students this year who have been in the shoes you’re in now. Smart, motivated students. And guess what? They were stressed and overwhelmed too. So the first place to start in your process is realize you’re not alone.
This basically sucks for everyone.
The worst part, as you well know by now, is writing the admissions essay or personal statement. And the worst part about that process is deciding what the heck you should write it about.
So, let’s start there.
The most common mistake I see students making in their essays — whether for admissions or scholarships — is opening with a grand, abstract topic and then trying to wrestle it into submission.
I’m looking at personal statements that start with openers like this: “I believe that fewer things in this world are stronger than a sense of community.”
Or: “When you think of the word ‘family,’ most people envision a father, mother and children. I see something broader.”
If there is one way to make the person reading your essay get drowsy, it’s starting this way. First off, you only have about 650 words to work with so you can’t really afford to address anything overly grand and abstract. Secondly, grand and abstract doesn’t say anything much about you.
Instead, the trick is to start small — tiny, if possible — and then build your way out from there. That means putting your reader in an interesting place that says something about you. Or focusing on a little-discussed subject that likewise speaks to your personality and character.
This means, you could write your essay about: your fave kind of cereal. A secret club. Roller derby. Acne ointment. The sparkling water section at Kroger. Tupperware. Waiting for the bus. A hole in the carpet.
You’re looking for any little subject that will act as a portal into a story about you and will help you answer your prompt in a unique way.
The advantage? Everyone can relate to the small and mundane.
It’s a little like when we listen to comedians talk about being on an airplane, eating hot pockets or going tailgating. Part of the reason we love laughing about these kinds of subjects is because we get to think, “Yes, exactly, that’s exactly what that’s like.”
Approaching an essay this way is how a student got into Yale writing about Papa John’s pizza (look it up). And another student got into five ivy league schools by writing about Costco (Google that one, too).
So, say you want to write about a moment when you realized something important about yourself. Keep in mind that “important” is subjective. It doesn’t mean you became a hero or anything, it just means a moment when your purpose in life or the way you wanted to live life became clearer.
So, say your “aha” moment happened in line at the grocery store. You were considering buying a few York peppermint patties because they were three for the price of two and, also, they’re delicious.
Then you noticed a mom at the check-out was having trouble getting her credit card to work. The cashier tried it again, and it was declined again, as was another card. Then, a woman who was next in line stepped in and paid for the mom’s groceries. Just like that, no questions asked. The mom burst into tears and you kind of wanted to, too.
That was the moment you experienced what it means to help someone.
The place to start in your essay could be with those peppermint patties (symbolic because you realized how lucky you were to be contemplating buying candy while the woman was worried how she would feed her family). Or you could start by how you were watching her groceries — Ballpark wieners, cheese slices, Fruit Loops — inch down the grocery conveyor belt (symbolic because you grew up with those foods too). Whatever you do, zero in on something essential to your place in this “aha” moment, no matter how small it is.
Or say you want to write about your background or identity. For myself, I would start with a plate of Ukrainian perogies. I could describe them (and their deliciousness) in detail. Then I could use them to write about: my Ukrainian heritage; the work ethic my grandmother taught me; the importance of staying humble; and why I love to cook.
You could do the same with a bowl of cereal or pieces of Tupperware or even acne ointment. You can use that object to explain why you love/hate it, what it reminds you of, how it helps define you/your childhood/your background/your identity. They are items that represent who you are.
Often, students feel they don’t have anything interesting to write about because their lives haven’t been interesting enough yet. But you don’t need to have lived a big life to write a great essay. You just need to be big enough to go small.
Columnist Tara Kaprowy is the owner of Sway Essay, an admissions essay editing service. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org