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Spring Into Self-Expression: Developing Your Writing Voice Through Journaling

By Robin, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

“Today was a good day at school. Ingrid and I played at recess.”

And so began my very first journal entry. The navy blue velvet cover, complete with the silver outline of a unicorn, has withstood the test of time. As a 9-year-old, I recall feeling a sense of self-importance as I put ink to paper in rather awkward cursive handwriting and recounted my school day in a short paragraph.  Three years of my life are captured in my first journal volume, and what began as simple and brief entries meant to capture my daily life evolved over the years into longer missives where I explored my highest hopes, my deepest fears, and my most intense doubts.

From celebrating new life milestones, like getting my first job post-college, to reflecting on the current reality of pandemic life amidst historical social movements, journaling is what I do when I need to declutter my mind and engage in “real talk” with myself. Within the pages of my journal, I make sense of what is happening for me. So, what is the connection between journaling and the college application process, you might be wondering? Unlike the typical writing assignments students are asked to complete in high school, there are numerous college essay prompts that require students to engage in self-reflection. If one isn’t practiced in the art of introspection, these essay prompts might seem daunting. Journaling is a great way for students to begin the self-reflection process and develop their writing voice in preparation for writing personal statements.

Self-Reflecting Through Journaling

Do a quick review of the Common Application essay prompts, and you’ll see that the common theme that runs throughout nearly all of them is self-reflection. Whether you choose to write about an aspect of your background or identity, an obstacle you’ve overcome, a moment of personal growth, or a time you questioned a belief or idea, you have to be comfortable being vulnerable, and you have to be willing to turn inward. Going inward is challenging to do, especially if you’re not used to journeying there. This is why journaling is so worthwhile. Students who keep a journal are potentially setting themselves up to be more successful in identifying a meaningful topic for their college essay, not to mention that they may be better prepared and more comfortable engaging in the self-reflection that college essay prompts are meant to elicit.

Personally, the process of journaling has helped me learn how to reframe and recast my thoughts and recognize what I can control amidst what often seems like a very chaotic world. It is not uncommon for me to experience a shift in my own self-perception over the course of writing in my journal. It is where I can openly and honestly acknowledge how I’m feeling and then explore through my stream of consciousness musings what has led me to feel that way. Writing is affirming because each and every word that goes on the page attests to who you are, who you hope to be, what you believe, what you value, and what you treasure most in this world.

Students lead busy lives, and on any given day they’re contending with completing school assignments, studying for tests, navigating friendships, and participating in extracurricular activities. Journaling forces you to pause, put away the smartphone, and focus on yourself. This respite amidst your daily activities provides an opportunity for you to reflect on that difficult conversation you had with a friend that keeps replaying through your mind. It allows you the space to process the fact that you didn’t make the varsity team or to celebrate that you were cast in the lead role in the school play. Being able to engage with your thoughts and feelings in this way raises your self-awareness, helps you process emotions, and improves your ability to problem-solve. All of these skills ultimately help you gain insight into who you are and will leave you well-prepared to tackle any college essay prompt.

How to Start Journaling 

Summer break is a wonderful time for younger students to venture into the world of journaling and get into the practice of self-reflection, which can lead them to increased confidence and enhanced self-awareness. Interested in starting a journal but not sure how to begin? Just keep it simple and use whatever medium is most natural to you. For example, find a journal that appeals to you—maybe the artwork on the cover is meaningful to you, or perhaps you choose a simple green cover because that happens to be your favorite color. Or maybe, you prefer to share your thoughts online via a blog. There is no right or wrong way to journal, and if you do choose to publish your thoughts online, be sure to take into consideration what you’re comfortable sharing with an audience that may include your parents, grandparents, and admissions officers.

Developing Journaling Habits 

It takes an average of 66 days for a new habit to become automatic, so give yourself some grace when you first begin journaling—there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. Commit to writing for a set amount of time each day—even starting with just 5 minutes is fine. Whether you write in complete sentences, use bullet points, or compose a poem, any form of expressive thought is fine—do what feels natural to you.

Not sure what to write about? Start with what you know in the present moment:

  • What is on your mind?
  • How are you feeling physically? Mentally?
  • What made you smile today?
  • What is worrying you?
  • What are you hopeful for?

What are you looking forward to tomorrow? Or, instead of responding to questions, complete some sentences:

  • I feel most like myself when I _________.
  • To really understand me, people should know that I ________.
  • People always assume that I ________ when I really ________.
  • Today I discovered that ________.

As you respond to the questions or complete the sentences, be open to where your thoughts lead you; where you start your journey might be very different from the destination you reach – that is the beauty of self-reflection. Allow your journal to be a safe space that grounds you, ensuring that you are ready to take on each day with a sense of purpose.

Going back and reading your old journal entries can be quite eye-opening in the sense that you might be surprised at how much insight you have into yourself. You’ll likely find a treasure trove of anecdotes and memories that serve as a highlight reel of sorts, which can be helpful when deciding on college essay topics. While perusing past journal entries, you might even notice patterns in the topics you chose to write about and as well your own authorial voice. Recognizing those things can help you confidently identify an college essay topic and write about it in your own authentic style. The more practiced you become with journaling, the more likely you will realize that you do in fact have a story to share with colleges, and you can trust that it is a story that they are eager to hear!

At IvyWise, we encourage students to start thinking about their college application essays the summer before senior year, with some starting the brainstorming process as early as the spring of junior year. While you don’t need to have a topic nailed down in 11th grade, it is important to start the self-reflection process as soon as possible so that when it comes time to work on college applications over summer break you’re prepared for the personal statement writing process. Our team of expert counselors has worked with thousands of students to help them brainstorm and refine compelling personal statements. For more information on our college counseling services and how we can help you put together authentic and engaging applications contact us today.

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