By Robin, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor
As a former high school English teacher, I always tout the importance of reading as a means to improve one’s writing, especially when it comes to the college essay.
Author Annie Proulx perhaps sums it up best: “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” Reading exposes you to different writing styles, diction, and sentence syntax which can influence, improve, and even inspire your own writing style.
As high school juniors begin to mull over the Common Application essay prompts and brainstorm possible topics for their personal essay, the prospect of embarking on this process may seem daunting. After all, the personal statement is where you have an opportunity to stand out among thousands of other applicants by establishing a connection with the admissions officer. The story you choose to tell matters and the way in which that story is told can make all the difference. So how do you ensure your topic is memorable? How do you avoid cliche? What is the most effective technique to employ to tell your story?
At its core, writing the college essay is an act of storytelling and it’s about a topic you know well – yourself. Still, sometimes the topic closest to us is the most difficult one to write about. Questions and self-doubt abound – How do we identify our voice? What story is worthy of being shared? How do we tell our story in a compelling way?
Using Memoirs as Writing Inspiration
When you think about it, the personal essay is similar to the memoir genre since you are writing an autobiographical reflection about a moment from your life. In a memoir, the author is the protagonist, just as you are the main character of the personal essay. Unlike an autobiography that spans an individual’s entire life, the memoir tends to focus on a certain moment(s) or event(s) from the author’s life. Similarly, the personal essay should be specific and focused – if you try to cover a wide range of events from your life within the 650-word limit, you may very well go over that limit, and you may end up with an essay that lacks clarity and cohesiveness. Likewise, in a memoir, the author shares the wisdom and insight gained from significant life experiences – this is precisely what you need to do in your personal essay!
By focusing on a pivotal moment(s) or event(s), the memoir author is able to provide rich descriptive details while also sharing genuine reflection and self-knowledge gleaned from those experiences via the timeless act of storytelling. The storytelling aspect of a memoir is what allows the reader to connect with the writer; the writer’s “voice” or personal narrative style beckons the reader to be fully immersed in the story. Ideally, this is how your personal essay should affect the reader, too. While you only have 650 words to tell your story, it is essential that your natural voice emerges as the essay unfolds. Specific details and thoughtful descriptions can allow the reader (i.e. the admissions counselor) to connect with you, and amidst those details, you need to communicate what lesson was learned, what wisdom was gained, and/or how you grew from that particular experience.
Outside Reading Suggestions
With that in mind, the following books serve as powerful reminders about the importance of individual storytelling. I would recommend any of these books to students who are looking for some inspiration as they begin to craft their own stories. Whether you’re looking for techniques and exercises to hone your own writing craft or simply want to read a really well-told story, the following books offer a little bit of something for everyone. From the practical advice of Anne Lamott and horror writer Stephen King to the humorous family encounters of David Sedaris and the gripping and sometimes heartbreaking reflections on identity by Trevor Noah and Jeannette Walls, I invite you to explore these writers and their worlds. It’s an excursion you won’t soon forget, and it may just help remind you that your own story is worthy of sharing and motivate you to celebrate your own writing style. Happy reading and writing!
Books on Writing Technique:
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
On Writing by Stephen King
The Best American Essays Anthology
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
The Yellow House by Sarah Bloom
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories about Facing the Unknown, edited by Catherine Burns
The personal statement is a critical piece of the college application puzzle, and many students struggle to strike a balance between their authentic voice and what they think an admissions committee wants to hear. At IvyWise, our team of expert counselors works with students to help them identify the essay topics that are the most meaningful to them and work together to ensure that students are presenting their best, authentic selves to admissions committees. For more information on our college counseling services for high school seniors, contact us today.