Know the Main Point You Want to Make
About Yourself In Your Essay!
I don’t know why I haven’t written about this before. It’s soooooo important to writing a college application essay that will give you that edge in landing your dream school acceptance.
To start off, if you don’t know the Main Point of your college application essay, you are pretty much sunk right off the bat.
In my popular writing guide, Escape Essay Hell, I’m pretty sure I mentioned this somewhere in my step-by-step process. But I probably should have hammered this topic more.
If you are writing a personal statement style essay for say, The Common Application, or other college applications, the piece needs to be all about you.
So, as in all good writing, you can’t really begin until you have a clear idea of what you want to say. In this case, what you want to say about yourself.
Finding THE MAIN POINT YOU ARE GOING TO SAY ABOUT YOURSELF in your college application essay is similar, actually almost identical, to making a thesis statement.
Ugh. I know. I never liked having to deal with those. They make you think, and also make some hard decisions.
Why? Because you have to boil down your message to its essence. And that ain’t easy.
When you write a personal statement essay, you need to DECIDE what the main thing is you want to say. About yourself.
Trouble is, you can’t say everything. That would take a book.
So you must pick. Narrow it down. Frame it up. Decide on ONE main thing you want to tell these schools about yourself. ONE!
No, you can’t just say how great you are. Or, pick me, pick me, I’m super smart, and a hard worker and also play a mean sax. And did I mention I have 40,000 hours of community service?
Instead, you want to find ONE thing about yourself that you can write about that will help your target colleges and universities:
Differentiate you from the other applicants
Find you likable
See that you are interesting
Get a sense of your “intellectual vitality,” which mainly means you enjoy learning and thinking
Remember you when they are making their cuts
This is where you want to start the brainstorming process to try to identify topics that you can use to show this ONE MAIN POINT about yourself to these schools.
Here are some topics students wrote about in the sample essays in my collection, Heavenly Essays: An obsession with junk collecting. Messing up while waiting tables. Coming from an in vitro egg. Road trip in Winnebago with parents. Getting stuck in a tree. Swallowing a goldfish. Having three older bossy sisters. Smiling too much.
Great topics! However, before these students could write about these ideas, they had to first know…you got it…THE MAIN POINT THEY WANTED TO MAKE ABOUT THEMSELVES in their essays.
Because these essays were not about these topics. They were about these students. And your essay needs to be about you.
When working one-on-one with students, I usually start by having them identify a short list of their defining qualities or characteristics. Then we pick one, and we use that to decide the ONE MAIN POINT they will write about themselves in their essay.
I don’t know where you are at in the brainstorming or writing process. But see if this helps you identify your MAIN POINT:
Can you write: “I am the type of girl or guy who is _______________________ and it matters because ______________________.” ?
Try to fill in that first blank with one specific description of yourself, such as a defining quality or characteristic. The second blank will help you identify what you value and/or what you learned.
This is how you pick or decide what part of you you are going to showcase in your essay. This will give it focus and allow you to write about yourself without needing an entire book.
Remember, you are going to write about only one part of yourself.
Once you have a clear idea of your MAIN POINT, everything you have to say in your essay will relate, somehow, to this point. Everything you say will support this point, offer examples (little stories of you in action) of this point, explore and explain this point.
Check out this post, How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps, to learn how to put together a narrative style personal statement essay that will cover all these goals. And of course, include your main point. You might not need to overtly state your main point, as with a thesis statement, but it will be in there somewhere.
If you want more help, my book, Escape Essay Hell, lays this all out step by step in more detail.
Remember, the MAIN POINT of these college application essays is to help you stand out among the competition. And you can’t stand out unless you first know the MAIN POINT about yourself that will help you do this best.
***Need in-person help getting starting? Check out my Jumpstart Webinars. Only $30! FREE if you can’t afford them. Two left this month!
Tips on Turning Problems into Hot Topics
So you have thought of a topic you want to write about in your college application essay.
I’m guessing it will fall into one of these three categories: the Good, the Bad or the Ugly.
If so, here’s tips on how to approach them so they make effective essays.
#1: How to Write About the GOOD in Your College Application Essay
Of course colleges want to hear about all the GOOD stuff you have done in your life so far, especially during your high school years. And it’s natural to want to stuff your college application essays with all those glowing details–about your achievements, your accomplishments, your shining personality and your stellar character.
Stop right there! The last thing you want to do with your essay is cram it full of lists of every good or impressive thing you have done. Not only would your essay be dull as dirt, but your application will already be loaded with details about your impressive grades, extra-curricular activities, awards, internships, etc.
Also, an essay that only talks about your good side can easily tip into a tone that comes across as boastful or arrogant, which is off-putting to readers (aka admissions officers).
Then how do you write about something good about yourself in your essay?
Easy! Start with something not so good about yourself.
If you are showcasing an accomplishment, start with a time when you were just starting to work towards it. Look for obstacles or challenges that were in your way. Share your frustrations, defeats, mistakes, conflicts, missteps, etc. After that, you can shift into how you overcame them and ultimately conquered your goal.
The point of sharing an accomplishment, achievement or something good about yourself in a personal statement essay is not only to let schools know what you did or how wonderful you are–but how you did it or got that way, why you did it, and what you learned in the process. That is what should make up the bulk of your essay if you want to write about the Good in your essay.
You will strike the right tone if you were first humbled by the challenge or obstacle. When you share how you worked toward your achievement, accomplishment or personal growth goal, you will indirectly reveal your impressive qualities.
Best of all, your college application essay will be interesting to read! What good is an essay if no one wants to read past the first sentence or two?
Start with the Bad–and then move into the Good! Works every time!
#2: How to Write About the BAD in your College Application Essay
I think topics about your Bad stuff usually make the strongest essays. They are the most interesting, and also give you the best platform to shift into all your Good stuff.
I write a lot about how problems make awesome topics. If you think about problems you have faced in your past–especially the everyday, mundane ones–you will discover your little mini-stories, incidents, moments and experiences to power your essays. When you face a problem (challenge, obstacle, change, mistake, phobia, flaw, conflict…), it means that something happened. If something happened, then it’s interest to read about. You can also show how you turned that problem into a Good thing–because you dealt with it and learned something in the process.
When brainstorming topics for your essay, trust the times you had to handle problems. Almost any kind can work. You are terrified of the dark. You spent too much money at Target. You got caught gossiping about your best friend. You spilled coffee on a customer during your Starbucks job. You forgot your mom’s birthday. You got off the bus in the wrong neighborhood. You broke your dad’s favorite power tool. You dyed your hair orange by accident. You couldn’t afford the cost of your school trip to France.
Maybe you can’t believe you could spin an effective essay from a bad thing that happened to you. Won’t it be a giant downer and turn off your target schools?
Don’t believe me? Try reading some sample essays and see if you can spot some Bad stuff–and see how the writer turned it into an interesting and meaningful essay that ended up showcasing a lot of Good stuff. (Just put Sample Essay into the search box on this blog to find some. I also have a collection of sample essays available on Amazon, called Heavenly Essays.)
#3. How to Write about the UGLY in Your College Application Essay
When I say Ugly, I’m talking about the extreme Bad stuff. If you are lucky, you don’t have any Ugly in your life. That’s great!
However, many students have faced some really challenging realities and experiences. These can range from financial hardships to prejudices to illness, injury, death and other personal tragedies.
Should they write about these if they were so horrific?
I say YES. How could these circumstances or experiences not have shaped who they are, most likely in really Good ways?
That said, these highly dramatic or sensational topics can be tricky to write about.
What you want to avoid is an essay that describes all the Ugly stuff and only the Ugly stuff. Even though these details can be very moving and interesting, the essays need to be mainly about how the students handled these issues, and turned them into something positive as best as possible.
In fact, the most intense, tragic or Ugly the experience or situation, the less the student needs to write about it. Typically, a paragraph or two will convey enough for the reader to understand how hard it was. After that, time to shift into how the student dealt with the Ugly or handled it, and then what they learned from that process.
Another trick to handling a highly sensitive, emotional or tragic topic in a personal essay is to look for a smaller piece of that topic. Look for an example of the larger issue to share at the start of the essay, and then describe later the larger challenge. For instance, if a student writes about losing a parent, look for a moment, incident or experience that shows a related problem due to that loss. Maybe the student needs to find a resourceful way to get to school because no one is there to drive them. Or the student has learned how to buy groceries to feed the family now that mom is gone. (Notice that these are smaller “problems” that relate to the larger Ugly “problem.”)
Writing about these types of highly personal and often deeply painful topics can be extremely challenging. I think they can make powerful topics for college application essays if the student feels ready to explore and share them. Give it a try. If it’s too hard, bag it. There are many other topics out there!
Again, read sample essays to see how other students handled all these types of topics–the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Here’s a link to a few essays from Heavenly Essays to get you started (the second one, by Alex Segall is an excellent example of how to write about the Ugly): Sample Essays
Good luck! Remember, it’s not what you write about, but what you have to say about it that matters the most in these essays!
Many of you are already out for summer, or at the finishing line. Yippee!!
If you’re now officially an incoming high school senior, or soon to be, it’s time to get cranking on your college application essay.
I’m sure you have heard that summer is the ideal time to start the brainstorming and writing process. If you can get them all done before the start of your senior year, all the better.
You most likely have heard these essays can be critical to your college acceptance chances.
Yes, it’s true they can matter, and sometimes tip the scales in your favor. No doubt it’s worth putting in significant time and effort on them.
But I believe it’s important not to fall for all the hype and madness around this application process.
I know when I’m stressed or anxious, my creative juices quickly shrivel up.
Once you start reading about college application essays on the Web, you most likely will find advice that uses intimidating words, such as “transformational” and “differentiating.” So-called experts like to say things like how it’s critical to “Be yourself” in your essay, and how these are your “Chance to shine.”
They aren’t wrong, necessarily. But all the ballyhoo isn’t very helpful if all you want to know is how and where to start, and what topic to write about, and how to craft it into an effective essay.
When you hear that a killer essay is one that shows you “transforming yourself,” that’s quite a directive. It means you had some type of dramatic change in your life, whether it was physical, emotional or even spiritual.
If you had that type of experience, good for you. And it could make a solid topic.
Most of us, however, by age 16 or 17 or even later, have not experienced that type of radical metamorphosis. So can you still write a great essay?
What I have found working with students on these essays and the search for the holy grail topic, is that the simple, everyday “mundane” ones usually work best. Same goes for life changes. They don’t need to be profound to be interesting and meaningful.
For instance, if you are rooting around for an interesting topic, and reflecting on ways you have changed in recent years, look for the smaller changes. Look for shifts, adjustments, alterations, smaller movements in your life. I believe the most interesting shifts come in your thinking, especially if you learned something new or unexpected, or saw something in a different light or context.
The idea is that your essay topic doesn’t need to be about a momentous change in your life. Instead, recall moments, incidents or experiences that happened in your recent past (high school years are best), and see if anything changed or shifted in your thinking (about yourself, about others or about the world) in the process of dealing with whatever went down.
That takes off the pressure to have had a radical life experience where you were one person, and then something happened, and suddenly you were an entirely different person. That rarely happens. Instead, brainstorm those everyday moments or “times,” and explore how your thinking changed. Even better, think about how what you cared about changed. Hint: those are called your values.
Colleges love to not only get a sense of your unique personalities in these essays, but they value seeing how you think, feel and behave, and what you value and learn, in these essays. You can write a “transformational” essay without having changed from a bad person to a good person, or a shy person to an outgoing person, etc.
You are changing all the time, and it can be hard to notice at the moment. Take a little time to think of things that have happened to you, and more time to examine how you responded to them. Another hint: best place to find interesting moments are those that involved problems.
Even if you are following me so far, you most likely are wondering what you do once you think of some of these personal changes or shifts, and how to spin them into a piece of writing.
I have written posts all over my Essay Hell blog on exactly what to do, and I also spell it out in my popular writing guide, Escape Essay Hell, and in my online writing bootcamp. I’m also walking students through this process in my Jumpstart webinars, which started this month. The next one is this Saturday, at 10 a.m., West Coast time, and I will have several more this month.
So many ways to get started on these essays. Pick one and get going!
I hope you are hearing my main point in this post: Don’t get freaked out by all the hype about what these essays are all about.
Like all the millions of students who have gone into Essay Hell before you, you will also find a topic and write a killer essay! Just buckle down at some point this summer, read up on what they are all about, pick what resources you think will help you the best, and you will find they aren’t that freaky after all.
Here are some of my best posts to get you launched:
If you’ve done your homework on how to write an effective college application essay, you probably know the place to start is with your real-life stories.
The idea is to find moments, incidents and experiences from your past that illustrate a larger point you want to make about yourself in your essay.
Often, the best place to share an engaging mini-story (also called an anecdote) is at the very start of your piece.
The anecdote (mini-story) serves to “hook” or grab your reader’s interest at the start—something you always want in a standout application essay.
However, once you share that little moment, incident or mini-story (anecdote) that you have plucked out of time with little to no introduction, where do you go after that first paragraph or two? (more…)
All students have plenty to write about for their college application essays.
However, from what I’ve seen working with college-bound students for the last decade, many of our most talented, driven and intelligent teenagers are living such parallel, over-achieving lives that they struggle to find an effective essay topic.
These are the same kids, many targeting Ivy League educations, who will need bull’s-eye essays to have even a shot of getting in.
It’s sad, unfair and ironic: The hardest working students have no time for a life. (more…)
Such a feat and well-deserved accomplishment for what seems like an all-around great kid!
Not only was Michael accepted to 20 of our top learning institutions—including Harvard, Stanford and Yale—but he got a full ride to each of them. As well as more than a quarter million dollars in scholarships. (more…)
That means writing about everyday or ordinary experiences as opposed to those that try to impress or wow readers (aka college admissions folks).
Mundane topic example: My obsession with karaoke.
Trying-to-impress topic example: The time I played the star role in the school musical.
See the difference?
Which would you rather read about?
So when I discovered the brilliant writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry recently, and saw she also taps the mundane in life to help her students discover their personal stories, I couldn’t wait to share her ideas with those of you on the prowl for college application essay topics. (more…)
As a professional writing coach, I help students, parents, counselors, teachers and others from around the world on these dreaded essays!
Learn about my in-person and online tutoring, editing, workshops, books, and online courses, ... READ MORE....
Learn to Write Your Essay in One Hour!
My on-demand, fast-and-easy online e-course: How to Write a College App Essay (Click lightbulb for details.)
Perfect for The Common App, UCs, grad school, transfer and scholarship essays!