As summer begins its loping descent from July highs, I’m sure that some of you have already turned your thoughts from the US Olympic Swimming Team’s prospects (or perhaps their equally distracting abs) to writing your college essays. I remember the frustration of it: settling into a comfy spot only to stare blankly, void of ideas, as a tiny vertical bar blinks tauntingly from an empty document saved as “college essay.”
Perhaps a lack of preparation contributes to why personal essay writing can be so challenging. Unless things have changed significantly since I graduated from high school two years ago, I was rarely encouraged to or taught how to write a compelling, creative personal essay. But never fear - while condensing your whole 17 years of life can seem impossible, there are actually many resources available to help get your creative juices flowing. These include a great site put together by the Yale Admissions officers themselves.
If you’re struggling with inspiration, try making some lists - favorite books, vacations, foods, cultural experiences, websites, political pundits. Try to hone in on a story to use as a vehicle to communicate who you are, and don’t be afraid to talk about the process with your friends and family. Write lots of drafts, and don’t shy away from harsh criticism. I would highly recommend reading some sample non-fiction essays to get an idea of what the good stuff sounds like (I love Yale’s own Anne Fadiman and The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik). Clear and concise should be your gold standard, and remember to maintain your personality. Write what you want to, even if you’re worried the topic might seem boring, rather than what you think the admissions committee wants to read. Similarly, I recently came across a study entitled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long words Needlessly*.”
But whether your write about fish (like I did in my college essay) or about your favorite high school teacher, your personal statement is ultimately just a part of the full narrative that includes the rest of your application. And don’t get frustrated! I probably wrote about 25 drafts of essays on a slew of different subjects, and even some of my “short takes” were tweaked many times before I was satisfied. Much like there is no single formula for getting into Yale, there is no single formula for writing the essay. Remember, Yale Admissions Office leaves the subject up to you, the applicant, for a reason. Good Luck!
*Winner of an Ignoble Prize in 2006