Where Thoughts Meet Words: Guiding Questions & Statements to Make the Brainstorming Part of the Personal Statement (Much) Easier

One of the most challenging things about writing is sitting down to a “new” word document or to a piece of lined paper. If the piece of paper or doc were to have eyes, chances are it would stare blankly at you, waiting for you to make the first move. It may even snicker at your inability to come up with an idea. Thankfully though, this horrifying scene is 0% true since a piece of paper or a word doc is simply a surface that allows us to transform our thoughts in a concrete matter when recording them into written words.

Although the process of starting something from scratch can be exciting, it could also be quite overwhelming. Luckily, writing is an expressive and creative medium that allows for one to engage in a process of stream of thought (the process of writing down the first thing or things that come to mind) or brainstorming (literally partaking in the process of thinking in order to come up with ideas and solutions) in a way that feels safe. This sense of safety is because you, the writer, have the freedom to think about and write down what you would like to without fear of being judged.

Insider tip: the first step in any good writing practice is to brainstorm—whether it be to address a research question, write a personal narrative, or to develop an expository essay…just to name a few.

When faced with the task of starting on the personal statement, one may be too caught up with self-doubt as to if their story is worth telling or not. For this reason, by jotting down, recalling, or reflecting upon various life events and experiences that are important and/or memorable to you is the perfect place to begin. By engaging in this type of activity, you give form to your thoughts that can lead way to a really great personal narrative in which can later be transformed into your final personal statement!

Here are some key questions/guiding statements that you can use to help you when faced with the initial step of getting some ideas down on paper – feel free to write short hand notes or an extensive paragraph; remember that this process is about you and you only. Therefore, enjoy it, you may really surprise yourself!

  1. What is my favorite academic subject and why? What was one of the key memories that sparked my interest in this subject area?
  2. What has been my greatest success to date? What were the steps I took to achieve success? How did I feel within the moment in which I accomplished what I set out to do?
  3. What has been my greatest challenge so far and how did I overcome it or what steps I am taking to overcome it?
  4. What is one of my most unique and special talents? How did I discover that I have this talent?
  5. The extracurricular activity that I pursue with passion is….I do this because….
  6. What are my best three character traits and why?
  7. How would I describe my family life? How has my family life shaped who I am as a person?
  8. How has my background/religion/culture/country of origin shaped who I am as a person?
  9. The three things (can be: people/places/things/animals) in my life that are most impacting to me are….because….
  10. One of the biggest life lessons that I have learned thus far has been…I learned this lesson by…it has made me more….

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

The Key to Unlocking the Personal Statement: Understanding How to Write A Personal Narrative

When applicants learn that they must write a personal statement as part of their college application, one of the first (and natural) thoughts that comes to mind is, “Am I all that interesting to talk about in 650 words?” Although it may come as a surprise, the response to this inner reflection is “YES!” This is because in the course of one’s life, countless things and events happen from the mundane to the most grandiose experiences. Therefore, personal narrative essay writing lends itself beautifully to storytelling through written expression.

In the simplest of terms, a personal narrative essay is a story that has a beginning, middle, and end that flows both logically and chronologically so that the reader can follow it with ease. There is also a key statement (also known as a thesis statement) that demonstrates to the reader why the story is worth reading and why it is important to you (the writer). You, the writer, must convey how the story you are telling has impacted you in some way, which has led to a shift in perspective on how you now see the world through a new set of eyes. Think of it as a “cause and effect” relationship. What is so great about this type of essay is that it allows you to reveal something unique, personal, or special about yourself while at the same time, giving you the chance to form a connection with your reader.

Some writing constructs that help writers to develop successful personal narratives are to include an introduction with a strong “hook” and clear thesis statement, body paragraphs (three are perfect), and a conclusion that ends with a powerful “clincher”. Within the course of the essay, descriptions, setting, plot, climax, and key players (characters) should be addressed. This type of essay is truly one of the most creative and freeing for a writer to develop…therefore, have fun when telling your story!

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

Tackling the Common App – Prompt #2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

This essay prompt seems to defy most applicants’ inclinations to brag. It is far easier to bask in success than to tell strangers about a failure. It takes confidence to acknowledge and examine your shortcomings. The description of the failure should be clear and concise. Spend the majority of the essay discussing how you responded to the failure and learned from that experience.

Be honest in describing your reaction to the failure. Were you angry at yourself? Surprised? Did the failure motivate you to act? The lessons learned from the failure is the most important part of this essay. Include a thorough self-analysis and introspection which shows that you are self-aware.

The point of this essay is to show that you can evaluate, learn from, and move on from your failures.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Tackling the Common App – Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

This prompt is very broad, as there are a plethora beliefs or ideas to be questioned. Was the idea you questioned your own, your family’s, or your school’s? Or was it even broader than that, such as a socially accepted or cultural norm? Whatever belief you choose to discuss, make sure it is central to your identity.

The first two parts of the prompt ask you to address why you challenged the belief in the first place. What motivated you to act? The last question basically implies, was your decision worth it? Was your action worth the consequences and efforts? If not, that is okay. College is all about questioning beliefs and testing out ideas.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Stylistic Tips: What to Avoid

Wordiness and repetition. More often than not, students can cut at least a quarter of their essays and lose no meaningful content. Avoid repetition, fluff, and verbal fillers—there is no place for excess in a piece which is meant to be as engaging and effective as possible.

Making your essays dramatic, boring, or impenetrable.

Vague language. Never use words like “stuff” or “things;” they are far too imprecise. Even writing “this aspect of society bothers me…” is too unclear. What “aspect” are you specifically talking about? Do you really mean society as a whole, or just one specific group? Be clear and remember that admissions officers are not mind readers.

Clichéd metaphors, similes, phrases, or expressions. For example, avoid: “He is one in a million,” and terms such as “my global perspective” or “my potential as a future leader.” Clichés make essays sound uninspired and unoriginal—could you really not come up with a way to say something that hasn’t already been overused to the point of exhaustion? Clichés only show a writer’s lack of creativity.

Overusing the first-person. Most college admissions essays ask you to write about yourself anyway, so they are obviously going to be written as first-person narrative. Overusing “I” is an easy mistake to make. More than once per sentence is generally too much. Instead of using “I” all the time, use different pronouns or simply omit them.

Example: I love eating desserts so I started baking classes on the weekends. In particular, I focused on chocolates, cupcakes, and tortes. I really enjoyed these courses, and they’ve added a lot to my life. → An obsession with desserts drove me to attend weekend baking classes, focusing on chocolates, cupcakes, and tortes. These courses were very enjoyable and added a lot to my life.

Going off on tangents. Not all information about a certain experience, event, etc. needs to be mentioned. If content is not related to your main point or serves a purpose, exclude it.

Excess expletive constructions. Expletive constructions usually begin with “there” or “it.” “There is/there are,” “it is,” “it seems,” and the like are usually unnecessary. In an expletive construction, the “there,” or “it” do not serve as pronouns (aka they have no antecedents, meaning that they do not refer to anything); rather, they are merely empty subjects followed by a conjugation of the trite verb “to be.” To keep sentences engaging, use meaningful subjects and verbs.

Example: There were two girls in class who had problems with math. → Two girls in class had problems with math.

Example: It is Monday that I get to see my teacher again. →  On Monday I get to see my teacher again.

Don’t overuse flowery language. Too many adjectives, adverbs, and pompous words can ruin the reading experience by creating a suffocating feeling. Rather, use strong verbs to breathe some life into your essay.

Example: He lovingly gazed into her eyes and paused for a brief moment. Then, he took her soft, delicate hand in his, and whispered, “Will you marry me?” → He gazed into her eyes and paused for a moment. Then, he took her hand in his and whispered, “Will you marry me?”

Weak verbs. Just as strong verbs can make an essay, weak ones will ruin them. It’s inevitable that you will often use the verb “to be,” but do not overuse it. When another verb is possible or preferable, opt for it. The example below, though grammatically correct, is stylistically lacking. Notice how the bland verb “is” is replaced by “deserves” and “trace.”

Example: My mother is responsible for shaping me into the person I am today. She is not aware of her influence on me, however. →  My mother deserves credit for shaping me into the person I am today. Though unaware of her influence on me, I can trace my success back to her.

Unnecessary use of the passive voice. Using the passive voice—in other words, creating a sentence in which the object takes the position of the subject—is not grammatically incorrect, but over or unnecessary use makes essays wordy and confusing.

Example: The window was left open by Joe. (passive) →  Joe left the window open.(active)

Example: The ball was thrown into the goal by Sally. (passive) → Sally threw the ball into the goal as hard as she could. (active)

Note that the aforementioned passive examples are awkward. While reading the sentence, the reader wonders who is performing the action and is left guessing until the sentence’s end. To avoid confusion, place the subject in the typical subject position, at the front.

However, sometimes you would actually prefer to use the passive voice. If the focus of the sentence is the object, rather than the action, you should use the passive voice.

Example: As it was hit by a baseball bat, the precious Faberge egg shattered. (active) →  The precious Faberge egg shattered as it was hit by a baseball bat. (passive)

By: Andrea Schiralli