The college application writing process can be daunting and time-consuming. Most schools require a personal statement of up to 650 words, as well as school-specific supplemental essays. If you are applying to 10 schools, you could easily be required to write more than 10 essays in addition to the personal statement. It is best to get an early start on the writing process to ensure you have enough time to draft, edit and polish all of your essays. I recommend beginning the writing process by the summer before senior year. I sometimes begin with preliminary reading assignments with my students as early as March or April of junior year.
Where to Begin?
Begin by reading. I believe the expression “readers write better” holds true for all kinds of writing, and there is no exception for personal writing. Students should begin reading for the application process as early as possible. Personal writing is often a new or unfamiliar genre for high school students, so there can be a lot to learn.
There are plenty of advice books specific to application writing, which often give helpful tips and tricks specifically for the personal statement and supplemental essays. I use On Writing the College Application Essay by Harry Bauld with my students. Many of these advice books include successful application essays, which is a great place to start. When beginning the writing process with my students, we go over techniques in Bauld’s book, as well as look over good personal statement essays together and discuss what makes the essays work.
In addition to advice books, I find it helpful to read examples of personal writing by professional writers. Some great examples of essayists to look into are Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, Wendall Berry, and Phillip Lopate. When reading personal essays, think about the techniques the authors are using in their writing, and consider what the author is revealing about themselves. How can you borrow from other authors and learn from their writing?
As you read personal statements and other essays, spend some time practicing writing with different creative writing prompts. Bauld’s book includes a few, and you can find plenty online with a quick google search. You can practice with friends and give each other feedback. I assign my students a few creative writing assignments to warm up for the writing process before we get started on the personal statement.
The Personal Statement
Next, it is time to brainstorm for the personal statement. Look at the 6 personal statement questions from the Common Application. If you begin before the Common App opens on August 1 (which I highly recommend), you can easily find the prompts online. Do any of the prompts stick out to you? How would you answer each one? Which of your answers would be the strongest or the most compelling? Which answer allows you to bring out your positive or unique qualities? Try to answer at least 2 of the prompts in bullet form, and then decide which prompt you want to pursue. Then, it is time to begin your first draft. I guide my students through this process and help them decide on a topic and how to best answer the prompt.
Once you begin drafting your personal statement, it is helpful to set a writing schedule. This is something that I do for my students. I go back and forth with my students on their personal statements several times, providing extensive feedback and comments on each draft. I find that it is best to finalize the personal statement before you do your supplemental essays. I aim for my students to finish the personal statement by the end of the summer before senior year. That way, once school starts, they only have to focus on the supplemental essays.
As you work on the personal statement, ask family and friends to look over your essay for feedback. Keep in mind that if you have 4 different people look at it, you are likely to get 4 different opinions. This can be helpful, but sometimes confusing. Trust yourself on what changes you want to make-- remember, it is your essay.
If you have your list of schools finalized, or close to finalized, you can begin your supplemental essays. Many schools have at least one supplemental essay specific to the school. These essays can be anywhere from 50 to 600 words. I find it helpful to gather all of the supplemental essays ahead of time. If you are using the Common App, you can begin gathering the supplemental essays once the Common App opens on August 1. When I work with students, I gather all of the essays for them, because it is not always straightforward where the essay prompts are on each school’s application form, and I want to make sure no essays are missed.
Once you have the essays, go through the questions to brainstorm. I schedule a separate supplemental essay brainstorming session with all of my students so they have ideas of where to begin on each essay. Sometimes you can use very similar answers for different schools. Begin writing, starting with any Early Decision or Early Action schools. Set a schedule for when you want to complete each one, and try to get feedback from friends and family as you write. As with the personal statement, I also provide extensive feedback on all supplemental essays for my students.
Things to Keep in Mind
Students often struggle when deciding on what to write about. They want to be unique but don’t know how to be, they want to sound accomplished without coming off as cocky. Those things are important to think about, but remember that you are in high school. No one is expecting that you have cured cancer or started your own multinational business. Your essays do not need to be groundbreaking. What your essays should be are thoughtful, reflective and personal. Be yourself, let your own voice come through the writing, and write about things that bring out your positive qualities. If you’re not sure what kinds of traits you want to come through, ask your family and friends what they think your strengths are. Use those conversations as a starting point and reflect on your personal experiences.
If you are still unsure where to begin, or are looking for guidance during the writing process, I offer small group personal writing workshops in Brookline for rising juniors. The workshops take place in the summer and are 2-day intensive writing classes, where we will complete reading and writing assignments in preparation for college application writing. We will examine and discuss successful personal statements as well as professional essays. Students will also have the opportunity to brainstorm and begin working on their personal statement while receiving feedback from myself and their peers. It is a great way for students to get started on their college application writing with guidance and support. You can find more information about this year’s writing workshops on my services page.