College application essays in general, and the UC personal insight statements in particular, are a preview to the kind of writing most students will encounter in college and beyond.
Unknown Audience: You will be writing for a community of strangers.
Writer-Determined Topic: You will pick the topic for your response and attempt to make it as engaging and interesting as possible — in most cases using stories.
Dig Deeper: Analysis and reflection are critical. Arriving at writing that satisfies will likely take several versions, something many young writers tend to avoid.
Few high school students have dealt with this kind of writing. You are now writing for strangers in an admissions office who are not only reading what you have written, but are also judging you based upon what you have written. No one likes such scrutiny, especially when the stakes are so high. There is one other uncertainty: you are now selecting the topic to use in the essay, and that is a scary proposition.
Whether the prompt is: “Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?” (UC Personal Insight Statement #5) or the University of Chicago’s Extended Essay Question #1: “What is square one, and can you actually go back to it?” Keep one clear principle in mind: the real topic is you.
Accept this and the rest of the writing process will quickly come into focus. The essay is your vehicle for developing rapport with everyone and anyone in the admissions office. Developing rapport, by the way, is best done by showing, not telling, your audience who you are. You want to select topics that will help you do this, generally within an “And, But, Therefore” narrative form.
Common sense suggests certain topics should be avoided in your college essay. These include drug use, sexual experimentation, self-pity, criminal activity, strong religious beliefs, a travelogue … there is a more complete list at http://www.essayhell.com/2013/06/cbs-digs-essay-hells-topic-tips/#more-3126. Discussing shady activities, or superficial treatments of your one-week trip to the Great Wall, is hardly going to present you accurately.
Choosing a topic you are excited about will generally be best. If it is rebuilding a Chevrolet 2.8 liter, V6 engine, describe the process clearly and in detail, again, preferably around a story. Your enthusiasm will shine through if your interest is real and even someone who does not know a bolt from a screw will enjoy.
If you cannot come up with a topic, it is always a good idea to start asking questions. Such probing stimulates your brain cells and opens up your thinking: What do I spend a lot of time doing? In what activity do I lose track of time? Reading widely in poetry, novels, and, especially, other essays is an excellent way to get ideas.
Free writing and free association is a good way to generate topics, but do it with a pen or pencil on paper. Recent studies from the University of Indiana indicate handwriting evokes strong mind response and idea generation.
After selecting a topic, the painful part is getting started. Do not be intimidated by the process. Yes, you might go down some dead ends. What you write might not come close to expressing what it is you wanted to get across. This is all part of getting to where you want to go. Look at it from a different perspective. The pleasure of getting it right can bring incomparable rewards. You might discover qualities about yourself within your essay that you never knew you had. That, in itself, is the whole purpose of the enterprise in the first place: self-discovery. It is just a question of getting it down on paper. Start now.
Ralph Becker, founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC (www.ivycollegeprep.net) and a resident of Long Beach, has been counseling students for the last 11 years. A former Yale Alumni interviewer, he holds a certificate in college counseling from UCLA Extension, and has published SAT* Vocab 800. firstname.lastname@example.org.