How to Journal Your Way to a Creative Personal Statement

How to Journal Your Way to a Creative Personal Statement

 Use Old-School Pen & Paper

I recommend the old-school writing technique of journaling: pen and paper, when you are relaxed (like before going to bed). At this point, you need to write more than you think and this is a great way of silencing your inner critic. Journaling also has proven therapeutic benefits, so it will help you write your way through whatever you’re going through.

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4 Writing Tips I Used For My Business Insider Essay

The Hollywood cheating scandal has caused widespread outrage—and for good reason. I wrote about the issues inherent in the college-industrial complex for Business Insider, from my perspective as both an admissions essay guru and as a senior who went through the application process myself. 

Though my essay is more op-ed than personal statement, I thought it would still be helpful to share the writing techniques I used to help you with your personal essay:

1) Set A Time Limit For Your First Draft

When the article was originally assigned to me, the editor gave me a strict deadline: 4 pm that day. The problem? It was already 12:30 pm. Normally, I would procrastinate until the last hour, but surprisingly, the rush nature actually helped me. After breaking out in a cold sweat, I started writing immediately. I actually wasn’t able to procrastinate because there wasn’t any time to. I knew the more I put it off, the worse off I would be since the best writing needs time for revisions. I also stuck by my motto that has been with me since senior year of high school: Write now. Revise later. Fun fact: my original opening was rewritten four times. I came up with a more personal intro at first and had no way of knowing how to connect it to the greater cheating story, but sometimes you have to start writing to figure out where the story will take you. Create this same time crunch for yourself - set an alarm for an hour and see what happens. Remember that it will be a rushed rough draft and that’s ok: that’s the whole point. You need a starting point that you can edit later.

2) Try Writing On Something Other Than Your Laptop

Real talk: I didn’t start the assignment on my laptop or even using my standing desk. I took out my phone, opened my Notes app, and started typing the story on the couch. There was something freeing about using this informal medium that allowed me to keep writing and prevented me from descending into a writer’s block of anxiety. I highly recommend starting your essay informally, whatever that means to you: maybe you write an unpublished post on your Instagram or use pen and paper in the back of your geometry notebook. Either way works because the informal nature of both tricks your brain into thinking this is no big deal and you don’t go into stress overdrive. 

3) Put It Away For a Few Days (At Least)

Spoiler alert: the 4pm deadline came and went as I was frantically editing my draft that was literally double the word count he gave me. (Yes, even professional writers struggle with these things!). I ended up turning it in too late for it to run that day, but that ended up being a blessing since I had the weekend to keep working on it. So did I write and rewrite for three days straight? Nope. That doesn’t really help, actually. You need to give yourself a break from your draft in order to edit the essay with fresh eyes. I knew I would see the piece in a new light if I took a few days away from it, so I spent most of my weekend thinking of everything but the essay. 

4) Ask No More Than 3 Trusted People to Edit It  

After taking my scheduled quarantine from the essay, I began to revise it. The few days away helped me brainstorm solutions to what wasn’t working since I had a fresh perspective on the piece. Once I got it to the best place I thought I could take it, I shared it with a few key writers who I trusted for feedback. Keep in mind that I built in time for addressing these concerns and making sure they had enough time to review it. There is such a thing as “too many cooks” with writing, so really be thoughtful about who you share your draft with. Getting too many edits from different sources can paralyze you and make you feel like the essay can’t be fixed. 

4 Ways to Create a Compelling Opener In Your Personal Statement

The thing most students struggle with is how to open their personal essay. There is a lot of pressure as this is your first impression. In general, you want to employ creative writing techniques. Make us feel like you felt when all this was happening, including the confusion, the frustration.

Below are some proven techniques I give my students, but here’s the good news: your opener may be buried somewhere deeper in the essay and it just takes a seasoned editor to point it out. Don’t stress and just write - you might not find your opening until the 3rd revision, so give yourself enough time to revise.

PLAY WITH YOUR STORY’S TIMELINE

Think about a recent movie you saw and how it opened - did it start from the character being born or did it start in the middle of a climactic moment? Most award-winning movies and books play with time. You can start at any point in your story’s timeline. (If your anecdote is about a traumatic moment in your childhood, it’s ok to start chronologically at the beginning.) If you’re stuck, pretend like you're writing a screenplay about your life and you’re filming that first scene. Speaking in the present tense and introducing an element of tension will make the opening more compelling. But don't forget your inner thoughts and feelings - what you seeing, thinking, hearing, feeling as you run?

START IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ACTION

Any fellow AP English nerds know this literary technique as “in medias res.” Most openings “tell us” what’s going on instead of “showing us.” For a more creative approach, start mid-story in the present tense. If you’re writing about your passion for track, you could start in the middle of your hardest race or about your first experience learning how to run in the 4th grade. Find the most compelling moment in your story to start with instead of telling us the story chronologically. Whichever moment you choose, remember that the tensions and emotions should be high. Don’t pick a boring anecdote that doesn’t resonate with you - it should be something you remember vividly. Then tell it to us as though it’s happening in real time, in the present.

HEIGHTEN THE EMOTIONAL STAKES

The opener can be a shocking or funny statement to get the reader's attention right away, while keeping some mystery to engage them to keep reading. Just make sure you address all the unanswered questions in the next paragraph. Once you’ve successfully grabbed our attention, you should provide all the missing background. In the next paragraph, zoom out and tell us the context of where you are and the background behind this race. Don’t forget to include timeline markers like how old you were so that we get a sense of the full transformation throughout the essay.

EVOKE THE 5 SENSES

Don’t forget to evoke your five senses in a new opener that makes us feel like how you feel when you run. What do you see, hear, feel, sense, or taste? (They might not all apply, so pick the ones that most resonate with that memory you’re describing). Make us feel like we're in your head and can hear all your thoughts. Explain everything going on in your mind at this moment. Make us feel like we’re right there with you. Paint the scene for us. Again, if the moment wasn’t meaningful enough that you don’t remember your thoughts or senses, then that anecdote is probably not the right one and you should choose a different one.

How to Cut Down Your Admissions Essay for Word Count

How to Cut Down Your Admissions Essay for Word Count

First, print out your essay and write in the margin next to every paragraph what each paragraph is about in 2-3 words (“tension with heritage,” for example). If you’re having trouble summarizing what each paragraph is about, go back and rewrite it. Once you’re done with this exercise, you’ll be able to see which paragraphs are superfluous and which are worth keeping.

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5 Easy Hacks to Answering the "Why This College” Essay

5 Easy Hacks to Answering the "Why This College” Essay

In fact, just because it’s a shorter supplement doesn’t mean you should leave it for last. The “Why this college?” supplement is actually one of the hardest essays to answer. Ideally, you would’ve visited the campus, researched the school, and spoken to former alums to really know the answer. But not everyone has the privilege (or money) to travel to see schools, Luckily, I have some shortcuts for you.

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Why You Should Ignore Word Count (At First)

One of the most common mistakes I see in my student’s essays is fixating too much on word count. What often happens is students start writing, get to the 650 maximum word count, and just stop abruptly (maybe hastily adding a cheesy summary closing line) — even if the story is still unfinished.

Or I get the opposite approach with an essay that’s much shorter than the word count, which is also a mistake because every word is a chance to stand out and show admissions officers who you are and why they should add you to their campus community.

Here’s what most students don’t realize about the writing process: it takes an average of four revisions to get to the perfect final draft (and some students go through seven!). So that means you might end up writing 2,000 words of rough drafts to get to a perfect final draft of 650 words. 

Even professional writers don’t get it right on the first try. And most of the time, half the written work is left on the cutting room floor before publication.

What does that mean for you? Keep writing, no matter how long it gets. And with every draft, keep adding new and better details for every example, keep writing to draw out the storytelling of each anecdote, keep journaling to uncover deeper levels of self-reflection.

Only at the very end (let’s say around draft three or four) do I recommend you start even checking the word count. Then, follow my steps for proofreading to find what to cut. 

The 8 Grammar Mistakes to Watch Out For

The 8 Grammar Mistakes to Watch Out For

These are all a great thing to look out for when you're proofreading your essay. I’ve had so many students make the dangling modifier mistake, in addition to the faulty quotation mark punctuation. But you should find comfort that even published authors make the same mistakes! Everyone needs help with their grammar sometimes, especially since it often takes a new pair of eyes to spot typos, because yours have already gotten habituated to your words.

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Your Summer Admissions Essay Checklist

Your Summer Admissions Essay Checklist

1) Start a Journal
The hardest thing about a personal essay is finding your voice—most high schools focus on the academic essay, which is more stiff and formulaic than the admissions essay. An easy way to discover what you sound like when you're not citing academic sources or analyzing text is to start a journal. Every night before bed, take a few minutes to write about your day or what's worrying you or even try some of the prompts in the Common App. The relaxing background should let you tap into your personal voice without the pressure of sounding academic. At the very least, you'll have some snippets saved away for the draft writing stage.

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4 Admissions Essays That Worked—And Why

4 Admissions Essays That Worked—And Why

TOPIC 1: Redefining The Idea of Masculinity While Growing Up With Two Moms
SUCCESS RATE:
Accepted to all 10 schools he applied to, including Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Yale University, Princeton University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 
WHY IT WORKED: Colleges want to see exceptional students who overcome adversity because it shows strength and students are not afraid to challenge societal norms, because that takes risk. This essay manages to convey both at once.

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Your Last-Minute Admissions Essay Checklist

Your Last-Minute Admissions Essay Checklist

Overusing adverbs (basically, essentially, actually) means that your verbs are not strong enough on their own. Wordy phrases and fragments slow down your narrative. Pedantic words like “myriad” and “plethora” should only be used if you know what they mean - otherwise you come across as someone disingenuous who used athesaurus to sound smarter (something admissions officers can easily see through.)

Inspired by Karyn, here are a few more things I would add to your admissions essay checklist for before you submit:

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Your Admissions Essay Winter Break Reading List

Calling all juniors (and precocious sophomores)! Now that you’re done with class and homework and finals and extracurriculars, this weeklong break is your perfect opportunity to prep for your admissions essay. The personal statement is incredibly difficult to master, especially since most schools don’t emphasize creative writing in their curriculums. The best way for you to learn a brand new way of writing is to read the best examples of that writing. Consider the below your personal essay master class.

 1) Bossypants by Tina Fey

If memoirs aren’t really your thing, try a humor memoir. This New York Times bestseller by the former Saturday Night Live head writer is one of my all time faves! Other hilarious humor essayists to check out are Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Jess Klein, and more. If your friends would describe you as funny, you should try a draft that takes a humorous approach. Even one self-deprecating line can do a lot in making you seem more approachable and likable, which is personal essay gold.

2) The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

After discovering your inner humorist, you should take a look at the classic memoir genre. One of the most important aspects of a personal essay is the self-reflection and that’s what a memoir is all about. If you’re not sure what you like, go to your local bookstore and check out the memoir section and browse until you find something interesting. The New York Times bestseller list is a great place to discover those too. 

3) Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

This is both a beautiful memoir and a great intro to writing that professional writers swear by. This book is a go-to for when you’re stuck with writer’s block. It is one of the most quotable and memorable books for a reason! 

4) On Writing The College Application Essay by Harry Bauld 

My English teacher introduced this gem to me in high school and it was a game changer. Written by a former admissions officer and English teacher, this book is what gave me the writing mantra I still swear by today. Full of great example essays, the book also breaks down the all the elements of a standout essay. I swear by this! If you do one thing, get this book.

The One Thing Most Students Forget Before Submitting Their Admissions Essay

The One Thing Most Students Forget Before Submitting Their Admissions Essay

You spent months perfecting your essay, going through multiple revisions and edits. You've cut the cliches and got it down to word count. You've finessed the opening and closing lines to eye-catching perfection. Everyone from your counselor to your mom's cousin twice removed has proofread it and given it their seal of approval. Maybe you've even hired a guru or two to give it the professional once (or twice) over.

Now all you have to do is click submit, right? And then you'll breathe the sweet victory of completion.

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What High School Doesn't Teach You About The Admissions Essay

What High School Doesn't Teach You About The Admissions Essay

Most high schools focus on teaching you the academic essay: you know, thesis statement, supporting paragraphs, and a closing paragraph summarizing the above. There is a pretty exact formula you have to stick with and not much room for creativity. Your tone is overly formal and you are expected to cite and analyze texts for a unique argument and conclusion. The good news: You spend 4 years learning this academic skill, which is helpful and will be what you are expected to write in college. 

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The Secret Trick to Channeling Your Creativity

You're staring at your computer screen, the mouse blinking back at you expectantly.

You've already tried writing an email draft to a friend, using your iPhone notes app, and remembering the Write Now Revise Later mantra. You know your deadline is coming up, but you feel totally stuck. Your brain is on vacay. Your inner narrator is off duty. You can't think of anything to write. Welcome to writer's block.

Here's an easy trick: switch up when and where you write.

All of us have our own internal clocks and creativity can come when we least expect it. Some of my best writing has occurred in the twilight hours between 3 and 4 in the morning. You may find yourself suddenly inspired at 6am in bed with your journal or at noon in the park on your iPad.

For now, turn your computer off, go for a walk, get distracted, and then try again at a different time and place.

Let me know if it worked!

How to Overcome The Hardest Essay Roadblocks

How to Overcome The Hardest Essay Roadblocks

1) Ignoring the Supplemental Essay Questions

A common mistake is providing the same generic answer to the supplemental "Why do you want to go to this school?" question. Admissions officers have told me that if you can copy and paste your answer to every school, you're doing it wrong. The answer has to be personalized to each school: mention specific professors or majors unique to the school or something you discovered on your campus tour. Experts in Forbes second that opinion.

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Answers to Your Most Pressing Admissions Essay Questions

Answers to Your Most Pressing Admissions Essay Questions

I know you're supposed to “show don't tell.” How do I do that, exactly?
The best way to show is to use anecdotes, specific examples, and lots of detail. Telling is saying, “I am curious.” Showing is describing an anecdote where you got in trouble with your parents because you snuck into the cabinet and ate coffee beans just because you were curious. Picture your essay as a screenplay and that will help.

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