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This is one of my favorite brainstorming activities. Why?
It’s one of the most efficient ways I know to help generate a TON of content for your personal statement and also add texture to bring your essay to life.
Also, it’s just fun to do and a great way to reflect.
Ready to do it?
Click here for a list of questions to help you with the exercise. Then, watch the video below.
What’s one of your essence objects? Share it in the comments below and tell us what it represents to you.
Check out the one-hour guide to the personal statement for more brainstorming exercises.
This is a question that came up during last week's live course. And, to be frank, there are many ways to talk about your challenges in your personal statement. But here are three good techniques:
1. With a little poetry
Here’s a professional writing example:
We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped our spoons against our empty bowls; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots. We turned up the knob on the TV until our ears ached with the shouts of angry men. We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats, we wanted rock. We wanted muscles on our skinny arms. We had bird bones, hollow and light, and we wanted more density, more weight. We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more. [...]
And when our Paps came home, we got spankings. Our little round butt cheeks were tore up: red, raw, leather-whipped. We knew there was something on the other side of pain, on the other side of the sting. Prickly heat radiated upward from our thighs and backsides, fire consumed our brains, but we knew that there was something more, some place our Paps was taking us with all this. We knew, because he was meticulous, because he was precise, because he took his time.
- Excerpt from “Lessons” by Justin Torres. For the rest, click here or “Google Justin Torres Lessons”
Here’s a personal statement example:
I can do this by myself. I held the blade, watched it slide across my flesh. The knife was just like Richard Selzer described: cold, gleaming, silent. Red drops of blood trailed the slightly serrated edge. I let out a long sigh.
I was at my most desperate. My friend had died in September of my junior year. Five AP classes, weekly volunteering, and a tutoring job had provided added stress. I needed reprieve. And I found it in the knife.
Two months later, my French teacher, Madame Deleuze, discovered my secret. That day in AP French while everyone else drilled vocabulary, she called me out to have a talk.
- Excerpt from the "Knife" essay, which may be found in College Essay Essentials
IMPORTANT: This is extremely difficult to do—like walking a high-wire—and, if done poorly, this can fail spectacularly. I’d only recommend this if 1) you have lots of time before your essay is due, 2) you consider yourself a moderately good writer and, 3) you are able to speak about your challenges with distance and objectivity (i.e. - you have mostly or completely come through the challenge(s) you’re describing). If you’re short on time, don’t have a lot of experience writing creative non-fiction, or are still very much “in it,” I’d recommend not choosing this method.
But, if you are interested in doing this, and want to learn more about how, check out my analysis in my book College Essay Essentials. (Not trying to sell a book here, it’s just too much to print here and I wanted you know more where you could learn more. That’s where.)
Another great read: What America’s Got Talent Can Teach You About Your College Essay
2. With a little humor
Click here for a movie example, or Google this phrase:
But partying it up with a bunch of munchkins isn’t the only way to bring light to an otherwise pretty dark situation.
Here’s a personal statement example:
When I was fifteen years old I broke up with my mother. We could still be friends, I told her, but I needed my space, and she couldn’t give me that.
- Excerpt from the "Breaking Up With Mom" essay found in College Essay Essentials
Note how she uses the (funny, but subtle) cliche of “I needed space” and puts it the context of something that was a pretty big deal for her—cutting her mother off.
I’ve desperately attempted to consolidate my opposing opinions of Barbie into a single belief, but I’ve accepted that they’re separate. In one, she has perpetuated physical ideals unrepresentative of how real female bodies are built. Striving to look like Barbie is not only striving for the impossible—the effort is detrimental to women’s psychological and physical health, including my own. In the other, Barbie has inspired me in her breaking of the plastic ceiling. She has dabbled in close to 150 careers, including some I’d love to have: a UNICEF Ambassador, teacher, and business executive. And although it’s not officially listed on her résumé, Barbie served honorably in the War in Afghanistan.
- Excerpt from “Barbie vs. Terrorism and the Patriarchy” in College Essay Essentials and in PDF for “How to Write a Personal Statement”
And here’s a request (and challenge) for you, dear reader: I’d love to see more examples of the use of humor to address challenges, as I haven’t seen many great ones.
Request: Can you think of any--either in personal statements or otherwise? If so, please email them to [email protected]. Or:
Challenge: Maybe you write the essay that provides a great example for future students.
3. With straightforward efficiency
This is the simplest way, and it can even be the most vulnerable. Why? Because there's nothing dressing it up--no hiding behind poetic language or humor--you're just telling it like it is.
Personal statement example:
At age three, I was separated from my mother. The court gave full custody of both my baby brother and me to my father. Of course, at my young age, I had no clue what was going on. However, it did not take me long to realize that life with my father would not be without its difficulties."
- Excerpt from "Raising Anthony" in College Essay Essentials and in PDF for “How to Write a Personal Statement”
another great read: the ten types of movie (and personal statement) plots
IMPORTANT: I mention “efficiency” above because it’s important to do this in the most succinct way possible—probably in the first paragraph or two. But they you need to move on to a) what you did about it and b) what you learned. So just tell it, with simple and plain language.
ALSO: If you're unsure/insecure about adding humor or poetry, I'd recommend starting with the straightforward method. It'll get you started. And, who knows, maybe some humor and poetry will emerge.
Here's one more example of a straightforward, efficient opening to an essay that deals with challenges:
It was Easter and we should’ve been celebrating with our family, but my father had locked us in the house. If he wasn’t going out, neither were my mother and I.
My mother came to the U.S. from Mexico to study English. She’d been an exceptional student and had a bright future ahead of her. But she fell in love and eloped with the man that eventually became my father. He loved her in an unhealthy way, and was both physically and verbally abusive. My mother lacked the courage to start over so she stayed with him and slowly let go of her dreams and aspirations. But she wouldn’t allow for the same to happen to me.
- Excerpt from “Easter" essay in College Essay Essentials
Still uncertain about how to do this? Want more?
For a complete structural analysis of the “Raising Anthony” essay mentioned above, click here, or Google "College Essay Guy Significant Challenges Essay YouTube" to watch an 18-minute video.
Rock on. With humor, poetry, and (most of all) efficiency.
Another awesome sample essay: The "Punk Rock Philosopher" Example Personal Statement
In Save the Cat, the very excellent screenwriting book by the late Blake Snyder, Mr. Snyder claims there are ten basic movie plots. It’s a rad concept and it just may help you figure out the plot (aka story) for your college essay.
Here are all 10 plots, with examples from both movies and college essays:
1. DUDE WITH A PROBLEM.
What it is: Our hero (male or female) is in a serious situation and needs to find a solution RIGHT. NOW.
Movie examples: From Brave to Braveheart, Finding Nemo to Finding Forrester, almost every film you’ve ever seen involves a hero trying solving a problem. In fact, try to name a major movie in which the main character does NOT have a problem to solve. (Spoiler: you can’t.)
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: make sure The Problem—whatever it is—is clearly established by the end of the first paragraph. And make sure the problem is super clear. While your ending can have an element of ambiguity (i.e. - you choose not to clearly spell out whether the problem was ultimately solved or not), your set-up has to be crystal clear. Otherwise you may lose your audience.
2. GOLDEN FLEECE.
What it is: Our hero is on a quest to find or do something (aka a “golden fleece”). And note that the golden fleece can be either:
a. something specific and tangible (like the pirate treasure in Goonies)
b. something abstract (like Carl’s dream of fulfilling his promise to Ellie in Up), or
c. BOTH specific AND abstract (like Indiana Jones’s search for the Holy Grail, an object that is both a tangible thing and something that grants eternal life)
Also note that the “golden fleece” could either be ancient and epic (like Frodo’s journey across Middle Earth to destroy the ring and thereby destroy the forces of Evil) or more contemporary and mundane (like the four guys in American Pie who vow to lose their virginity by prom night).
Movie examples: All the ones I just mentioned.
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: again, it’s important that the “golden fleece”—whatever it is in your story—is clearly set up by the end of the first paragraph.
Advanced tip: if you choose to have an ambiguous or what I like to call a “poetic” ending—in which you don’t clearly spell out whether you got what you were aiming for or not—make sure you give the reader a limited number of options. In other words, make sure the reader can guess—and even debate!—how things turned out once the credits were rolling. At the end of Inception, for example, the coin either stopped spinning or it didn’t.
For an example essay with a poetic ending, check out the “Dead Bird” essay, and note how this author weaves together not one by two “golden fleeces.” (See if you can spot them.)
3. BUDDY LOVE.
What it is: any film that’s primarily about a relationship, including romantic comedies.
Movie examples: Monsters Inc., Ice Age, Shrek--and note that Shrek is both a romantic comedy AND a buddy movie. #AndinthemorningI'mmakin’WAFFLES!
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: take the term “buddy” broadly—your essay could be about anyone you’ve connected with deeply or learned from. But make sure the essay is about YOU, and not the other person. After all, your grandmother isn’t the one applying to college. You are.
For an example essay, click the “Grandma’s Kimchi” essay.
What it is: a story about how a place, group or community has a huge impact on an individual, and how membership in that group benefits or costs that person.
Movie examples: Monsters Inc., GoodFellas, The Lego Movie
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: you can write about a club, volunteer experience, or most any other community, but make sure the essay is less about the institution/community itself, and more about you, in particular what the costs and benefits of being in/out of that community have been.
5. RITES OF PASSAGE.
What it is: our main character goes through a crucible to discover something really valuable about him or herself.
Movie examples: Star Wars, The Matrix, Stand By Me
Two tips for using this plot for your personal statement:
1. Often the main character (in your essay that’s you) will work for the first half of the story to solve the problem in the wrong way (based on what s/he wants), at some point make an important realization, and then begin to do things in a better way (based on what s/he needs).
2. The “crucible” can be many things--a divorce, moving to a new country, or giving something up--but I’d recommend keeping it to major life changes and not small ones (like passing an academic test or making a sports team--unless of course you can explain why making the team was a rite of passage). Bonus tip: make sure the crucible is clearly set up early in the essay.
For an example essay, click the “Letting Go of Grandma” essay.
Another great read: Racking up Style Points: Two Tips for Revising Your College Essay
What it is: Whereas “Dude with a Problem” is about an ordinary person people in an extraordinary situation, “Superhero” films tend to be about extraordinary people coping with ordinary situations.
Movie examples: Frozen, Twilight, Spiderman
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: if you happen to be inordinately good at something, or several things, one way to bring up your “superpower(s)” in a way that won’t sound like you’re bragging is to use your accomplishments as a kind of straw man, essentially saying “I may be X, Y and Z, but all those things don’t truly describe who I am,” and then let the reader know who you are beyond the accomplishments.
Caution: this can feel gimmicky if not done with care.
For a great example, check out the “Punk Rock Philosopher” Essay.
7. OUT OF THE BOTTLE.
What it is: someone makes a wish and ends up getting much more than s/he bargained for.
Movie examples: Aladdin, Groundhog Day, The Nutty Professor
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: it’s important to note that this doesn’t have to be a “magical” something, but simply a catalyst. Think about it: was there a time when you wished for X, thinking it would solve your problems, but once you got X you realized that the problem wasn’t that you needed X, but actually you needed to realize Y (something completely different)? Or was there perhaps a time you embarked on an adventure thinking it would end up being kind of magical and fun, but ended up finding experiencing something completely unexpected?
For a college essay example of someone (in this case, a chicken) who wishes for one thing and ends up getting much more than he bargained for, check out one of my favorite essays, the “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road” essay.
What it is: A mystery needs to be unraveled, but in this case the WHY is more important than the WHO. In other words the criminal’s motives are more important than his/her identity.
Movie examples: The Maze Runner Series (Why are we here?), The Harry Potter Series (Why did he do it?), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (Why did he do it?)
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: consider setting up and even solving the mystery as your hook, to grab your reader’s attention. Then immediately after that raise a question about why it happened, as a kind of double-hook. This one’s tricky, and I’ve only seen it done once in college essay, but it just so happens to be my favorite essay ever.
To read that essay, click here.
9. MONSTER IN THE HOUSE.
What it is: there’s a “monster” (an evil someone or something) and a “house” (a confined space) and the main characters have to escape from or kill the monster, either literally or metaphorically.
Movie examples: Jaws, Jurassic Park, Goonies
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: Broaden the notions of “monster” and “house” in your essay. For example:
The “monster” in your essay could be a particularly undesirable trait (such as laziness, self-doubt or X), that the main character (you) discovered and then had to overcome.
The “house” (or confined space) could be a time constraint. In other words, you had to “kill the monster” (find the “treasure” or overcome the obstacle) by a certain deadline. Note that in Goonies the “deadline” is the bad guys finding the kids. (Bonus tip: in screenwriting parlance, the technique of introducing a deadline is called a “ticking clock,” and raises the stakes.)
Here’s an example:
The FIRST Robotics Competition design deadline was two weeks away when my Chilean cousins came to visit me in St. Louis. I hadn’t seen Carmen or Alexia in three years, but they understood I was busy: spending afternoons with my team and nights in my room doing homework. I could hear them laughing downstairs, playing Monopoly late into the night, drinking leche con platano and eating empanadas. It wasn’t until Carmen’s mom got sick and they had to go back a week early that I started to feel very anxious. Was I nervous about our submission or feeling guilty? When we were dropping my cousins off at the airport, Alexia gave me a hug, a big smile, and genuinely wished me good luck, not once mentioning my absence. I wanted to cry. I chose my work over my family and blew off my cousins completely. On the car ride home, I begged my mom to let me go visit them during Spring Break, not caring about my previous plans to visit Silicon Valley. Not only did we become best friends that week, but I practically talk to them every week, thankful they forgave my selfishness.
10. FOOL TRIUMPHANT.
What it is: the “unlikely hero” story in which a normal (or unqualified) person gets in over his or her head and ends up achieving something awesome.
Movie examples: Lego Movie, Elf, Wreck-it Ralph, Kung Fu Panda
Tip for using this plot for your personal statement: establish early in the essay how unqualified or underprepared you were for whatever you ended up ultimately achieving.
Examples: I’ve never actually had a student use this structure! Be the first, and email it to us.
Here's video that features Five College Essay Questions Counselors Should Be Able to Help Their Students Answer.
Short attention span like Dory?
Here's a YouTube playlist with 1-minute answers to questions I get asked all the time.
Another great read: Four Techniques for Writing a Great Conclusion
Learn how to end a college essay by using this four-step process and stealing from of our tried-and-true college essay conclusion examples.
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