Choosing Your Story: College Admissions Essay Help (page 2)
Here's where many students get stuck: now that you know how important the essay is, and why you need it to be as good as it can be, what should you write about? The real roadblock lies in the misconception that there is one perfect story, and that if you don't determine what it is your essay won't be great. For every idea you come up with, a nagging doubt rises: "Is this the story, or is there a better one that I just haven't thought of yet?" That's the kind of thinking that can stop even professional writers in their tracks.
The reality is that there are likely dozens of worthy stories, and you can write a powerful personal essay on any one of them. In this chapter, we'll explore four effective brainstorming methods to help you uncover them. Using one or more of the following techniques can help you get over the feeling of being over whelmed by the importance of this writing task, and move you closer toward crafting an effective admissions essay.
Why You Need to Brainstorm
You've been told about the importance of brainstorming in your English and Composition classes: jumping into an essay with no idea of where you're headed is almost always a waste of time and a bad idea (and this is especially true for timed essays, like those on the SAT and ACT). Crafting a well-written personal essay begins with effective brainstorming.
It's important to take this step seriously. Don't be tempted to rush in or skip it. In many ways, brainstorming is the most important part of the writing process; without it, you're gambling with success. You could spend hours writing an eloquent piece that might get you an A in your English class, but doesn't work as a personal essay. Take the time to think about the story you want to tell. What do you want admissions counselors to know about you? What information will help them see you as more than a list of activities, grades, and test scores?
Find Your Voice and Find Your Story: Journaling
Here's a common piece of college essay writing advice: your personal statement should be written in your own voice. But what does that mean? You have a voice you use with your friends, another with your teachers, and still another with your parents. Which one is right for your essay? One of the easiest ways to find the right voice for your essay is to keep a journal.
This might seem like odd advice and unrelated to the major task you have to accomplish. But it is actually a great method for beginning your essay, for two important reasons. The first is that your journal will sound like you and allow you to practice honing your voice. Rachel Klein-Ash, a college counselor at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts, advises her students to keep journals to help with essay writing because they can "give them back their own words." Journals, Klein-Ash says, are like "your mind coming out on paper." When you are writing your essay, you can use the journal as a reference for tone and word choices that convey your authentic voice.
The second reason for keeping a journal is that it can be a great source of ideas. In it, you can write about what's important to you, your goals and aspirations, your values, and your take on everything from popular culture to current events. Your journal, coupled with the information you gather in your inventory (which we'll get to later in this chapter), is the perfect source of raw data from which to begin the essay writing process.
Journaling doesn't have to be an elaborate, time-consuming process. Take as little as five minutes a day to write about something personal. In order to journal effectively you need to make it a routine, so the process needs to be as simple and painless as possible. Think about your daily habits and routine, and employ a journaling strategy that best suits you. You can write on paper, make journal entries on your computer, or keep a blog.
Pick a time and place to write in your journal each day. If you're writing on paper, get a journal that's small enough to carry with you everywhere you go. Therefore, when inspiration hits you'll be ready. If you're typing, set aside a specific time to work at your computer. To avoid distractions, open your journal document before going online and stick with it for the allotted time period.
If you're considering keeping an online journal or blog, visit www.my-diary.org, www.blogger.com, or www.livejournal.com to see how they're set up. Some sites require you to type entries while online, and others have down loadable diaries that can be added to at any time. A word of warning: the potential problem with these sites is the distractions. There are other diarist's entries to read, software to play around with, and features such as uploading pictures, all of which can keep you from your real task. If you're having trouble staying focused, choose the hand written or simple word processing journal option.
When journaling in an effort to find admissions essay material, limit yourself to writing about your experiences, thoughts, and feelings. This could include your view of the world, a good or bad thing that happened to you each day, your school, and your friends and family. Remember to keep it focused on you. Use the following prompts to help you if you get stuck or need some direction.
- Write a letter to someone who has had a significant influence on you. Use as many details and anecdotes as possible to show, rather than tell, why they are so important.
- Choose a current event, and discuss its importance. Be as personal as possible. How has the event changed your thinking? How does it make you feel? How has it impacted your daily life or future plans?
- Describe a risk you took, and what you gained or lost by taking it. Did you learn something about yourself or the world? Are you a different person because you took the risk? Was it worth it?
- Choose a creative work that is of particular importance to you. How has it influenced you? Describe it in great detail and remember to keep it personal.
- Describe a travel experience that affected you somehow. Recount the experience as specifically as possible, using all five senses to detail it.
- Describe a ritual you perform often that has meaning to you. It's ok to think small. Do you meditate while setting the table? Do you listen to a certain kind of music while studying or reading? Do you cook something for yourself when you're stressed out? Don't worry if the ritual is quirky or that it may not seem important to someone else.
- Imagine a perfect world. What does perfect mean to you? Get as detailed as possible. Aside from the requisite world peace and clean environment, think about the day-to-day things that would make a difference to you. Would every coffee maker have a pause and serve feature? Would your favorite band perform free concerts at your school every Saturday? Would everyone in your state, upon getting their driver's license, be given the car of their choice for free?
Once you begin the essay writing stage, your journal will become an invaluable tool for developing possible essay material. It can help you to choose the right tone, neither too casual nor too formal, so that your essay sounds like you. While reviewing your journal, make note of the words you use and what your voice sounds like. Also make note of the ideas and topics that hold your interest. Sometimes we're not aware of our feelings about something until we take the time to explore them.
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