“Writing a personal essay is often like seeing an old picture of yourself. It thrusts you back into a particular time and place, but at the same time you see yourself from a certain distance, bringing knowledge and understanding to past events that you didn’t have when they occurred.”
–Bruce Ballenger, Composition Theorist and Author
Applying for college is not a simple process. There are the basics—name, address, phone number. There are the complicated details—family income, college savings, expected contributions. And then there is the personal essay. In fact, by the time a high school senior is ready to apply it’s possible that he or she has prepared for everything but this last requirement: to say something meaningful about his or her own life.
A few years ago the makers of the Common Application—the universal application that many private schools accept—revised the writing prompts for the personal essay, with an emphasis on the personal. Gone are the prompts for writing about a literary character or historical figure. Gone is the “free choice” prompt. Instead, the new and improved prompts ask students to write about key challenges, failures, places, and transitions that have marked their lives thus far. One prompt even asks students if they have a background story that defines their identity and to use the essay to tell it. These topics require more than an introspective glance, but a long walk among one’s interior landscape, scavenging for inspiration.
It’s worth noting that in order for students to write an essay that distills their very essence into 650 words or less, they may have to forget a lot of what they learned in school. About grading standards. About formatting. About tailoring one’s essay to match a teacher’s idiosyncratic needs. Because the humble doorway into personal writing has a short list of requirements and few instructions; instead, it asks writers to think creatively and analytically about their background, to embrace a conversation with the self in order to tell someone else their story. It is highly possible, and very likely, that students will only see these prompts as chores. Many will feel dragged into them. But it’s also possible to see this important essay as more than a gatekeeper for the brave and strong, but also as a bridge between the old world and the new world to come. For students standing on the threshold of the college application essay, I offer the simple wisdom of the writing teacher. It’s my hope that the following advice will help students to gather their strength, take a deep breath, and embrace the journey ahead.
Transcend the Prompt.
Writer Annie Dillard says that the “sensation of writing” is the search for “unmerited grace.” Dillard says, “It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.”
What does it mean to go “looking” in writing? Dillard’s wisdom speaks to the notion that we discover what we have to say through writing. While this is true of all kinds of writing, students hoping to impress the admissions office are keen to skip this step. Finishing the essay becomes more important than discovery. And yet, discovering what one has to say is essential to saying it well—with meaning, with feeling. Patricia Hample, memoirist and writing teacher, says that not only do we use writing to discover what we have to say, we use it to attach the “value” to the “image.” In other words, we spend preliminary time thinking and writing about our ideas so that we find the connection between our individual topic and the importance of it.
Shape Your Inspiration.
So how does one approach the task of writing an essay where the journey is laid before them without a map? Well if they’ve spent any time thinking and writing about what they have to say, then they have a start. Because contrary to popular opinion, the structure of good writing is not found in the requirement of an outline, but in the meaning itself. The good idea that you have—the focus of your essay—will teach you the organization of the essay, will hand you the skeletal outline of a paper. Writer Joan Didion explains this elusive concept in her essay “Why I Write,” when she speaks about discovering direction in her drafts, “It tells you. You don’t tell it.” And here we begin to see the relationship that all readers identify in their favorite works: there is an important symmetry between form and meaning.
Write like the Wind.
Once writers have identified a vehicle for conveying their ideas, the next step should be the easiest and the shortest: to write. Without stopping, without over thinking, to “outrace the internal censor,” as composition guru Peter Elbow argues. Write quickly here, so you save gas in the tank for the revising and editing stages, some of the most important and least valued phases of writing.
Sweat the Details.
When I teach the writing process in my college courses, I try to help students recalibrate where they put their sustained effort. And while creating the draft is essential (because without it what would you work on?), the time spent after the first draft is premium. In this phase, invest time seeking the balance between showing and telling, creating great opening lines, distilling paragraphs, cutting superfluous information, providing strong illustrations of critical thinking, and sharpening word choice. Ask important questions about your writing: Is it interesting? Do I sound like a real person? Am I clear? And after all that, one should proofread. A lot. Many times. And then once more.
Enjoy the View.
While the college application essay places new pressure on the art of personal writing, it’s my belief that if also gives the writer a gift. As students head off to an unfamiliar place, with less friends and an unknown community, the essay asks students to think about who they are, where have they come from, what they value, where they find comfort. In an age that Christine Rosen, senior editor of the New Atlantis, asks young people to “show thy self” instead of the Delphic oracle’s “know thy self,” these essays ask students to a look in life’s rearview mirror and begin the process of self-definition. A single essay cannot give students the map they will need to find their way in the next several years of their young lives, but it can remind students that they know the way they are going because they know where they have been; that, in some cosmic way, they are the map itself.
–Victoria Payne Olivares teaches composition and personal non-fiction writing at the University of Portland and coaches college/graduate school applicants through BoxCar Writing Labs.