No Short Cuts: To Life & Writing A Personal Essay

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ONCE, WHEN I RETURNED TO CHINA WITH MY FAMILY, WE VISITED ONE OF THE TANG DYNASTY BUDDHIST TEMPLES WHERE MY GREAT-GRANDMOTHER USED TO BRING ME WHEN I WAS A CHILD. I PLANTED MY FIRST FOOT IN THE HALL OF THE FIVE HUNDRED ARHAT, THEIR WOODEN HULKING MASSES LOOMING IN THE DIM LIGHT. SINCE IT WAS MY RIGHT FOOT, I HAD TO TURN IN THAT DIRECTION AND COUNT MY NUMBER IN AGE ALONG THE ROWS OF STATUES. ACCORDING TO CUSTOM, THE ARHAT THAT YOU STOPPED AT WOULD BE THE ONE ASSOCIATED WITH YOUR DESTINY AT THAT POINT IN TIME. I PASSED BY STATUES THAT BRANDISHED PAGODAS FROM PALMS OR RODE FIRMLY ON FIERCE DRAGONS, AND I BRIMMED WITH EXCITEMENT TO FIND OUT WHO MY ARHAT WAS. THUS, WHEN MY FEET STOPPED IN FRONT OF A MIDDLE-AGED MAN SITTING CALMLY WITHOUT ANY DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTIC, TO SAY THAT I WAS SLIGHTLY DISAPPOINTED WOULD BE A BIT OF AN UNDERSTATEMENT. I DREW THE YELLOW CARD THAT CORRESPONDED TO HIS NAME, AND IT REVEALED THAT HE HAD ATTAINED NIRVANA BY THE THOROUGHLY IMPRESSIVE MAGICAL POWER OF … STUDYING HARD. MY MOTHER SEEMED PLEASED ENOUGH THOUGH, AND REPEATED THE WORDS TWICE: “THERE IS NO SHORTCUT IN THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD OF LIFE”.

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This opening might seem entirely irrelevant to the topic at hand, but allow me to come back to it.

 

Writing your personal statement for college applications is simultaneously one of the most frustrating and rewarding experiences ever. The source of the frustration and the reward lies in the same problem. While our education system trains us well in writing analytical or argumentative essays, we are rarely required to think about our personal experiences and what makes us special, let alone write creatively and convincingly (and perhaps even with a touch of humour) about them. Growing up in a system regimented by mark bands and essay plans, we’ve forgotten what it means to be genuine—how to write an essay that does not sound like an essay.

 

In the entire applications process, the personal statement is one of the few means by which you can give the admissions officer a glimpse of who you are as a human beyond your grades and co-curricular achievements. Hence, you shouldn’t worry about rehashing your achievements that would probably have already been sufficiently aired out in the other sections of your application. Relax and let your real self speak through the statement! Try to be creative or even whimsical: what makes you different from everybody else? What makes you you?

 

Of course, that is not to say that you should write a statement that tells an interesting but meaningless story that you had been through. There should be a purpose as to why you are showing the admission officer this side of yourself. Ask yourself: how is your personal statement a reason for them to admit you? This reason does not need to be explicitly said though it should be apparent from the statement. It is crucial to show, not tell. One way you can do this is by thinking of the personal statement as a game of Taboo. How do you get across what you are trying to say without explicitly stating it and sounding genuine at the same time? Forcing yourself not to use any of the words in what you want to say can be a helpful way of avoiding clichés.

 

Let others read your personal statement and comment. Ask your college counsellor if your school has one. Ask friends who know you well. If they did not see your name on the statement, would they be able to tell that it was you who wrote it, and not anyone else? It is important to make sure that your essay is unique and intensely personal, that after reading it you are sure that you are the only one who could have written it. If a stranger read it he should have an immediate and vivid impression of who you are as a person, and that ought to be in sync with who you really are, not who you think the College wants you to be. Expect to do a lot of writing and rewriting. You will have a lot of discarded drafts. I think by the end of the process I expended around eight to ten drafts, each of which had been trashed by my college counsellor for being insufficiently interesting. Nevertheless, you must be open to rewriting, and be ruthless in killing your darlings. It is often the case that the passages or ideas you are attached to are the ones that don’t actually work!

 

Which brings me back to the beginning. There is no shortcut to writing good statements. The discarded drafts are where the effort goes in because they made your final statement possible. The opening story I used is an example of a personal experience used to reveal something about the writer but which is not a cliché (it is not a redemption narrative where ‘I failed, worked hard, then triumphed’) and does not explicitly seek to put across a particular point. Thus, it sounds conversational rather than argumentative. It might be useful to think of personal statements for college applications in this sort of flavour, though stylistically you’ll probably come up with something very different. Don’t rely on essay templates, because it is likely that they will hinder your stylistic independence, which will have a better chance of shining through if you came up with your own essay structure. The style in which you write should reflect your own character and match the content of your essay. At the end of the day, try to make your essay sound sincere and heartfelt, like something you would write to a friend in a letter or to yourself in a diary.

 

This card does not contain a magical formula to your dream college. It does, however, advise you to study hard.
This card does not contain a magical formula to your dream college. It does, however, advise you to study hard.