One of the joys of my role is discussing potential admissions essay topics with students. Much like finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, students often believe they have very little of interest of which to write about. Some have even been moved to tears describing the struggle that they are having with the personal essay. My response is always the same – tell me about a memory or moment from your life. My request is usually met with a blank stare. I typically ask that students take a few days to come up with a dozen or so memories that we can discuss. It probably seems like an unusual request, but it is one of the most effective ways to develop essay topics. So why is it so effective?
A personal memory or moment activates our senses. We reveal our memories using vivid detail which sets the stage for a truly wonderful story. Undoubtedly, all of us have experienced that spellbinding trance when listening to someone share a riveting account of a personal tale. It has been my experience that students who develop essays around a memory or moment find the process less arduous and, in a few cases, effortless. And unlike writing a research paper or argumentative essay, students are not citing sources or quoting experts – they are telling us about a topic for which they are the experts. I advise students to simply sit down and start writing. Let it pour onto the page without editing. One of the many wonderful students who I am advising this year referred to this method as “word vomit,” a perfect (and hilarious) description! With so much written material with which to work, the editing process then becomes less complicated.
I find the exercise a truly pleasant one. The memory doesn’t have to be momentous; it merely needs to be meaningful. I still remember sitting on the steps of that musty stairwell examining the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf lined with hundreds of back issues of National Geographic covering more than a decade. It has been almost 40 years since that moment and yet, when I close my eyes, I am transported there. Inside each issue was a tiny glimpse of the complex world that lie beyond my little corner of rural America. They were my grandfather’s magazines. His interest in the world undoubtedly arose from his experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression and later from his military service in Europe during the second World War. That memory formed the basis for my interest in geography, history, and culture, which I would later study in college. It also continues to serve as a reminder of my grandfather’s humble existence as a young man during the 1930s. If I were applying to college today, I would start with this.
Guess what? College admissions officers find essays based on personal experiences captivating too. The key is integrating some aspect of college with the personal story. Helping admissions officers learn about you as a person and as a potential student is a fundamental goal of the personal statement. I often ask students to think about what their personal story says about them as a potential student. Writing a few concluding sentences relating the personal story with the student you will be as member of a college community is an effective way to close the essay.
Last week, I found myself asking “would you mind reading your essay aloud for us?” My request was unfair, but in true RE spirit, the student read aloud his work – with gusto! The experience of listening to someone read their written work for you is truly soul stirring. I happened to glance across the table at the student’s mother and the expression of joy on her face was unforgettable. I feel blessed to have been part of such a wonderful moment during my first few months here at Ransom Everglades.
Tell me about a memory or a moment that illustrated who you would be as a college student at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305 460 7956.
Jason Locke Executive Director of College Counseling
Founded in 1903, Ransom Everglades School is a coeducational, college preparatory day school for grades 6 - 12 located on two campuses in Coconut Grove, Florida. Ransom Everglades School produces graduates who "believe that they are in the world not so much for what they can get out of it as for what they can put into it." The school provides rigorous college preparation that promotes the student's sense of identity, community, personal integrity and values for a productive and satisfying life, and prepares the student to lead and to contribute to society.