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College Admissions: Mining Identity for College Essays, Personal Statements

Langston Hughes begins his poem "Theme for English B" this way:

The instructor said:
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you-
Then it will be true.
I wonder if it's that simple?

When colleges instruct you to "Tell us about yourself," it may sound simple, but it is not. Sarah Myers McGinty, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, conducted a study in 1998 to determine the importance of the college application essay and students' ability to complete it successfully-she found that while admissions officials viewed the essay as "somewhat important," students found themselves unprepared to write it. In The Chronicle of Higher Education (1/25/02), McGinty says, "I knew that students felt comfortable talking about the most significant event in the life of Jay Gatsby. But many felt ill-at-ease when asked about the most significant event in their own lives." A frequent reaction from students: "I've never done anything like this before!" Students are rarely asked to write personal narratives.

So how do you tell admissions officers about yourself in a true and convincing way? First, you need to "mine" various areas of your identity to discover what makes you an individual. We're not talking strip-mining, where you just pull up whatever's on the surface. We're talking about digging to see what's below the surface. That takes time and commitment, but in the end, you may strike gold.

Writing is discovery. You cannot write an essay without first discovering what you have to say. You are setting out to discover what has made you who you are. Keep a journal as you explore-these jottings and written wanderings are not your essay, but some will serve as the essay's building materials. Some areas of your identity to explore include:

Events in a College Essay

The events of your life-big and small, successes and failures-shape you as individual. This is an overarching area of identity, the one that encompasses most of the others in our list above. "Tell me about an event" or "describe an experience" means "tell me a story," which is what you will want to do in any personal essay. Storytelling needs to be lively and entertaining. Think about the kinds of details you provide when you tell your friends a story at the lunch table-you tell what the people in the story say; you dramatize events; you bring colors, sounds and smells to life; you transport your listener to the experience and show what it was like. You will have to conjure up these kinds of details for your essay as well, so pick an event or two and start jotting.

Which experience to pick? Looking at a few colleges' essay questions may knock some ideas loose in your head (emphases added):

Your experience does not have to be massively life-altering (not all of us have huge turning points in our lives), but can be one of the many little events in our lives that make us see ourselves and the world a bit differently. The time your classmates offered you a stolen test and you refused it. Seeing the ocean for the first time at age 15. Learning to drive or ski or swim. Notice, too, that all of the essay questions ask you both to tell the story of an experience and also to reflect on the significance or impact of the event.

Photograph Exploration

Stanford's photograph essay question is a great exercise that can force you to focus on small details. After examining the photo, write down in your journal what you look like-what you are wearing, the details of your facial expression, hair, eyes, mouth, arms, legs. Describe who else is in the photo. What is the setting? What is happening around you? Note colors, sounds, and motions that are captured in that still moment. What is the mood and what emotions do you see in yours and others' faces? What was happening in your life, your family's life, the nation and the world at the time of the photo? You can use the same laser beam eye to explore not only this photo but also other significant experiences in your life.


Passions in a College Essay

Your passion for certain causes or issues, as well as your hobbies or interests, show who you are. How do you spend your free time? What excites you? Concerns you? Enrages you? What have you done to translate this passion into action? I know a student whose concern over the Middle East conflict led him to distribute to all of his classmates bracelets commemorating those who have died in the conflict. His essay on the topic worked because his passion led him to action, and his writing conveyed his passion. Another student explored how his childhood Lego hobby was a springboard to his building robots in national competitions. I taught a young woman whose frustration over male-female relations in her school led her to start a Gender Issues discussion group. I know people who could write fascinating essays on their obsession with beads, their rock collection, or bike riding. Perhaps you think it's less-than-admirable to say that you spend every Saturday afternoon watching classic movies, but if you can intelligently reflect on why you love old movies and what it shows about you, it could be a worthwhile topic.

People in a College Essay

Begin by listing people in your life who have nurtured your identity. In addition to your family members, you may list instructors, coaches, teachers, or neighbors. After you make a list, decide which person or people you could write about most engagingly. Some applications ask you to write about a person; some just leave the door open for you by telling you to explore a topic of choice. The Common Application, for instance, suggests that you "Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe the influence."

You might begin your exploration by reflecting on your family and how it has affected who you have become. Focus on the details of one or two members of your family-their appearance, their habits, their activities, and their interactions with you. Think of a story that encapsulates a relationship. Consider exploring your family's cultural heritage, traditions, or foods. Bring the people you depict to life-give them color, personality, a voice. Provide anecdotes about these family members or other important people in your life.

Places in a College Essay

Perhaps a place has gotten under your skin because you've spent so much time there. Perhaps you've worked on your grandfather's farm in Wisconsin each summer since you were ten. Perhaps you attend a school unlike most schools in the nation, one in an unusual setting or with an unusual philosophy. Perhaps you spent a semester on sabbatical with your parents in Zimbabwe, and once you came back, everything looked different. Place can be a character, and you can tell a vivid story about how it helped shape you.

Religion in a College Essay

For some people, religion is integral to their lives and identities. Even so, you may consider religion a "touchy" subject. You may fear that the reader won't like your religion. Don't let that stop you if you have honest stories and reflections to relate. Consider writing a personal statement that reveals your thoughts about religion through a vivid story or series of anecdotes.

You care about your essay because it will help you get in to Wonderful U. Fair enough. But you can also gain a bonus along the way-self-realization as you step across the threshold from childhood to adulthood. A sense of who you are and what made you that way as you go out into the wider world. Happy digging.

(Once you've mined for ideas, visit other sections of the Accepted.com website, which offers lots of essay writing tips and sample student essays to help you pull your essay together.)

If you would like the guidance and support of experienced editors as you explore your identity and develop an application strategy, Accepted.com is here to help. We offer a range of services that can be tailored exactly to your needs. Our singular goal is to help you gain admittance to the college of your choice!

By Alison Jaenicke
Former Accepted.com Editor

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