Feature image from giphy.com
For me, writing the Common App personal statement was like getting my wisdom teeth pulled. Except that there was no novocaine, and the entire process took about two weeks, continuously. It also doesn’t help that I may or may not have done some things that made the entire process that much harder for myself on purpose.
Looking back now, here are five of those things.
Not starting early enough.
I was a pretty big procrastinator in high school, which definitely didn’t help me in my writing process. While I’m a strong proponent of the belief that any creative piece worth anyone’s time can’t be rushed, I also know that the Common App will not move its deadlines for anyone.
So by adamantly refusing to start working on the essay until the last few weeks before my first deadline, I had essentially boxed myself into a situation where I had to rush things whether I liked it or not (which, unsurprisingly, did not do wonders for my creativity).
For instance, one of my later drafts involved me detailing how I got dressed in the morning because I simply ran out of ideas. This idea, thankfully, did not make the final cut, but I don’t think I would’ve been this desperate if I had given myself at least a month like a reasonable person would. A month’s time is a tiny price to pay for 650 words that might determine the next four years of your life.
Okay, so you’d think choosing a topic for this essay should be a very important decision — and you’d be right. It’s definitely something you should put a lot of thought into, because you’re trying to condense your entire existence into 650 measly words. It’s a difficult process for many people and should take some time.
However, I took this advice a little too seriously and ended up spending most of my time in the brainstorming phase of things. In fact, brainstorming became another form of procrastination for me.
Every time I’d get motivated to actually write, I’d stop myself and wonder if I should choose my idea about marching band or my drawing style. And then I’d get into a mental debate with myself about whether I want to come off as more compassionate or more competitive (or something like that) until the motivation went away and I went back to watching YouTube videos (or something like that).
As I found later when I actually started writing — ideas and execution are two totally separate things, and a lot of times it’s impossible to actually predict which idea will lend itself best to actual paper and your writing voice.
Case in point: my final idea (the one that worked) was one that completely came out of left field, with no prior brainstorming. If I could do things over again, I’d definitely just force myself to pick an idea and write; it would’ve saved me about a week of pointless vacillation.
Asking for a second, third, fourth, fifth…nth opinion.
My high school senior brain told me that I had no idea who the essay readers at these colleges will be (which was true), and because of this, I should get as many opinions as possible on my essay so that I can make it appeal to many people as possible. It sounded great in theory, but as I found out, was absolutely terrible in practice.
Everyone wanted me to go in a different direction — one slightly self-deprecating story was perfectly hilarious to my English teacher, but got me yelled at by my extracurricular advisor because I was too “down on myself.” Something that was too formal to my father was too casual for my counselor. I had my essay in Google Docs, and each time someone went through the essay, they’d undo someone else’s changes and add their own. It was a confusing and very convoluted process that ultimately got me nowhere. I ended up scrapping this entire incarnation of my essay and starting from scratch.
There’s methodology out there for who to ask and who to avoid when it comes to personal statements, but I think my entire writing process would’ve been less frustrating if I had decided to only ask one or two people for their feedback. That way, instead of aiming for everyone’s approval and missing, I can at least know that I’ve completely satisfied one specific type of person.
Trying too hard.
You never get a second chance at a first impression — that much I knew in high school. So for one of my drafts, I had pulled out all the stops to try to be as memorable as I possibly could. All of my words were meticulously curated from a thesaurus. Each and every rhetorical device was perfectly planned to accommodate every single subtlety I could imagine. I made sure to crack jokes at myself and be as witty as my seventeen-year-old brain would allow. Semicolons I used liberally; dashes — profusely. I peppered my paragraphs with purple prose and penta-line sentences, hoping to portray myself as a pristine paragon of phrenic acumen.
Except…I ended up not sounding like me at all.
A common complaint I got (among all the readers I asked) was that all of a sudden, my writing lacked voice. It was boring, stale, stagnant — dead. It lacked presence and vibrance and color and…life.
Ironically enough, in trying to leave more of an impression, I had actually made less of one. Funny how these things work.
I did eventually turn things around at the eleventh hour and went for a writing style that was more me. But yeah, while it’s nice to elevate my language, I personally won’t ever make the mistake of going overboard with it ever again.
An aside: I had been cleaning up my Google Drive a while back, and found one of my purpler personal statement drafts. I had a good laugh and then promptly deleted it, because I never, ever want to be reminded that I ever wrote anything like that. Ever. It’s actually disgusting.
And the worst part of it all? My jokes weren’t even funny.
Worrying too much.
This section is going to be on the cheesy side, so bear with me.
Writing is one of the most efficient ways to communicate emotion. And you might be surprised at what gets through. If you’re sad while writing, readers will know. If you’re having an off day, readers will know. At least, in my experience, it’s been that way.
But that also means that on the flip side, readers will know if you enjoyed yourself while writing. That, in turn, makes them happy too.
My final draft of my personal statement told a story I held close to my heart — something I would’ve dismissed as too ordinary and not sensational enough in my earlier phases of brainstorming. It was one of those things that I lived and breathed every day, so much that I didn’t even notice that it was something special. Yet, that was the one that I had the most fun writing, and the one that sounded most like me. It was a piece of myself, on paper, and my test readers could tell.
They liked that one the best: some for the genuine, accessible voice I used; others for the creative metaphors; others for my sense of humor. And this was the personal statement that I ultimately submitted, that got me into the school I currently attend (Cornell, if you were wondering).
I guess what I want to say is that I should have trusted my instincts a little more. Happiness is infectious, and for the most part (barring grammar and technicalities), what makes you a happy writer will make your adcoms happy readers.
Instead of wasting so much time focusing on whether I should use ‘like’ or ‘as’ for my similes or whether I should come off as more ambitious or kind, I should have listened to my gut from the beginning. Because that idea ended up being the most “me” that I could possibly be, in the best way.
While I won’t go full out and say that everything that you enjoy writing will make for a good personal statement, I am willing to bet that any good personal statement must’ve also made the writer very happy.
Admittedly, I wasn’t the smartest high schooler out there when it came to college applications (see Exhibits A and B). Some of you might be able to relate to these regrets and for some of you lovely people, these pose no problem. But that’s why I’m sharing these experiences now, so that for those of you who can relate to these situations, you won’t end up making the same mistakes I did.
(Especially not the procrastination one, please; I’m pretty sure that was the cause of like three of the other regrets.)
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