It’s the part of college applications you dread: writing a personal essay. The prompts are designed to apply to everyone, but bereft of better guidance at school or maybe just suffering from pressure and terrible writer’s block, you stare at a blank page and wail “but I don’t know what to write!”
It’s not that you don’t know what to write. It’s that you don’t know what the admissions office wants to see, and that’s leaving you paralyzed as you try to figure out what magical combination of words will grant you admission to your top choice.
Let’s take a look at some basic essay prompts. These are taken from the Common Application, but it doesn’t matter exactly what the topic is. They all share a very basic premise, and that is asking you to be introspective as you share a little bit about yourself.
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?
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
Is there any one of us who hasn’t experienced failure? Challenged some belief? Had a problem that needed solving? No. So why is it hard to find a topic? Because you’re convinced your failure isn’t big enough for an essay. That belief you challenged was small or you weren’t successful. Your problem was stupid, and you didn’t get around to solving it so it doesn’t count.
Again, I say bull.
Your topic doesn’t matter. You can write an equally good essay on that time you stood up for your transgender classmate as you can about the time you ordered a triple ice cream scoop and then let it all fall on the floor. The point is not to show what a wonderful human being you are but that you are capable of introspection and writing a coherent set of paragraphs about it.
To find your topic, pick a prompt, any prompt. Now sit down and, without allowing yourself to say “that’s stupid” or “they’ll never want to read that,” start listing out your failures or problems. I don’t care what they are. Just list some. Here, I’ll get you started: failure to get a perfect grade that one time at school. Challenged your sister’s belief that cartoons are only for kids. A big problem was when you couldn’t find the remote for days. Yeah, they’re trivial topics, but that’s okay! Write down ones that pertain to you, pick one, and let’s get started fleshing out your story.
Get out another piece of paper or open a second Word window. We’re going to be doing scratch work, so don’t worry about grammar. Now, write down your topic and why it was a failure/problem/challenge/whatever. For example, “I once experienced failure by failing to get a perfect grade at school” and “I needed a perfect grade to get permission to attend a big party.”
From there on, details! You can’t go wrong with the journalism basics of who, what, when, where, why, and how. Who was involved? What happened? Where did this happen? Why? How? Even without anything but the facts, it’s already starting to look like a story, isn’t it? This is also where you answer the questions asked in the prompt, such as “How did it affect you?” or “What prompted you to act?” Skip any questions about what you learned or plans for the future, though, for now.
Next, we’ll start adding magic words. Still in your scratch area, write down how you felt at the time. Did you feel stupid? Awful? Like you wished the earth would swallow you whole? Free of trying to conform? Everything you felt, write it down.
Now, write down what you learned. Don’t tell me you didn’t learn anything. You learn from everything you do. Did you learn that studying isn’t always enough? Did you learn that sometimes, even if you fail you can still make it work (by talking to the teacher and getting an extra-credit assignment)? Did you learn not to brag? Did you learn that focusing on one test caused you to forget about other important things, like walking the dog? Did you learn that you need to study in a new way? That maybe you’d rather major in history than science? If your prompt has a specific learning-related question, make sure to write your answers to them.
Finally, think about how you plan to handle similar situations in the future. “In the future, I will make a point of getting good grades on all my tests, not just one important one.” State why you’re choosing this plan. “This will allow me to avoid similar failure while still having time to walk the dog.” If your prompt has a future-related question, such as “Would you make the same decision again?”, write down your answer to that.
Congratulations! You should now have all the pieces you need to write a great personal essay. Take all the details you just listed and put them into a story with pretty paragraphs. Focus a lot on how you felt, what you learned, and what you’ll do in the future because of this experience. That’s what they’re looking for. They want to see that you can be introspective, learn, and grow. That’s why it doesn’t matter what your topic is. If you can communicate those three things, then you’ve found the magic words.
Concerned about structure? Here’s a solid template you can’t go wrong with.