If ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard…
– Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz
The college essay has more in common with The Wizard of Oz than the traditional academic essay.
That’s because a great personal statement is one that tells stories about your growth and wisdom–the kind found in weird, wild places. A college essay isn’t you suiting up, showing off your best vocabulary and a list of your best moments. This essay is more rambling than a résumé, more exploratory than argumentative, and more creative than analytical.
In other words, it needs some heart and intuition.
I think a lot about process, creativity, and writing skills. I’m forever searching for a smoother, simpler, and fun way to help my students get the college essay job done. And lately, I’ve seen a ton of success when students follow their hearts down a bit of a winding path.
You know there’d be no story in The Wizard of Oz without the Yellow Brick Road. That banana-bright, twisty-turny highway to the Emerald City grew Dorothy up in many ways. First she had to go face some angry trees and awful witches. And she wasn’t always sure whether she’d find her heart’s desire. Dorothy’s path was a winding road of intuition. Impulsive and instinctual reactions, a mashup of brain, and heart, courage and faith.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road of Intuition
Intellect, emotion, and values are key components of the college essay. For example, look at how Claire began her amazing artistic statement that helped get her acceptance to art schools:
When I was little, I had an imaginary friend named Rocky Jones Orlando. He rode a motorcycle, wore a leather jacket, and played basketball. I remember the day he left. I dropped a basketball and as it bounced away, I imagined him walking to Florida. Although I don’t see him anymore, for obvious reasons, I still like to imagine what he’s doing today.
People tend to let go of their child-like imagination, but I never have. My imagination makes my artistic expression playful, flexible, and vulnerable.
This Rocky story emerged from the brainstorming exercises I suggest below, as well as me telling Claire to “ramble” and “overwrite” and “just tell me some stories.”
Claire found her stories along the yellow brick road because she trusted in the process. The artist in her–check out her work @clairesimmsart–knows that you have to take risks, be playful, and let your truths unfold in good time.
If writing fiction has taught me anything, it’s Trust your heart. It’s trust the little voice of the storyteller that knows where to go next.
Now that doesn’t mean it’s automatic, quick, or easy to start storytelling if a person doesn’t already embrace that identity. But there are some innate, intuitive moves that get us there faster.
It’s why I talk to many of my students about letting an intuitive hook like this guide them, a key scene that speaks to them, to be the launchpad paragraph of their essay. I distinguish intuitive hook from Awesome-Best-Ever Opening Line; that’s huge pressure and I don’t suggest focusing on a sentence as your way in. I’m talking about low-stakes scene generation exercises, which I’ll say more about below.
And you won’t be surprised to hear that Claire then returned to Rocky in her last paragraph, which is a technique I’ve learned college admission folks appreciate. They’re often skimming applications, seeking ways to connect, what’s popping out as a distinct image of this student, and finally, signs of writing craft. If a student can “come full circle” in 650 words, that’s a bonus: a sign of coherent, strong expression and knowing your message, your topic, and your truth.
Look, Ma, No Outlines!
Why this follow-your-gut method rather than the trusty Roman Numeral outline with its subsequent As, Bs, and Cs? Or even a bulleted outline arguing what you’re going to say?
I do love outlines. I use bulleted lists, and Trello Boards, and beats when writing novels. But I also really trust the intuitive process that begins with an image, a feeling, or a sentence. Because deep in our genes, embedded in our neural pathways, are the ancestral moves of our storytelling, cave-dwelling forebears. Sometimes, we need to listen to our inner cave dweller first. There’s a lot of writing and research on this, but you may want to begin with Lisa Cron’s Story Genius for starters.
When I meet a student, I ask if outlining works for them. I ask them about process and methods. I ask if they enjoy creative writing and want to jump in. Basically, whether the Intuitive Hook process, as I call it, makes their writing, much like the Munchkins, burst into song.
So How Do You Follow Intuition?
First, we brainstorm intuitively. I set students up with all kinds of rich activities that College Essay Guy recommends. These activities ask students to think about key symbols in their life, essential values, and lists of fun, personal trivia, all of which are relevant to the college personal statement.
- What’s Made Me (a riff off College Essay Guy’s Essence Objects exercise)
- Themes of My Life (a riff off College Essay Guy’s Values exercise)
Then we search for scenes. A common assignment I give is called “Three Moments of Me.” In this activity, a student writes three separate scenes of important images, moments, and actions. These can be full stories, beginning to end, or just snapshot impressions. What I want students to do is show themselves engaging with the world, being who they are in their favorite spaces and settings, and doing some of their favorite things. Some call this free writing; I call it storytelling.
To me, it’s the same principle: free your mind to tell your stories, beginning with all kinds of cool craft moves. A line of dialogue; a sensory detail; a startling statement. I give my students Craft Moves handouts, Hook handouts, and tons of model essays so they can see the myriad ways this might be done.
By the way, I define story as two sentences or two hundred words. It could be a heroine’s journey or it could be a snapshot or close-up of a conversation, a decision, or an impact.
I don’t ask for more than a paragraph that’s just a snapshot. There should be some gold–highly-specific craft at work, such as dialogue or images or numbers or actions–and also some explanation of why the student cares about this moment, finds it emblematic, wants to share it.
Then I tell many students to consider the Montage Structure, which is more of College Essay Guy’s story genius, and a helpful order of operations, courtesy of filmmaking. String together a series of “Gold” beads, I say, the string being your Blue Sky points, or values. Your argument of why you’re a great fit for college.
Oftentimes, the three moments a student chooses are the beacon leading them forward through the dark and murky woods of writing. What comes to mind first can sometimes be symbolic, most important–and especially if they’re coming from activities such as the 21 Details exercise, students see why certain Gold moments shine brighter than others.
What’s In a String?
The string or thread linking all your Gold is a topic. This could be an image (a controlling metaphor). It could be an object. It could be the argument that “I’ll bring these three values to your campus.” You can call this thread your argument.
I like to conflate all these terms because sometimes while you’re mining for Gold in your life, a line will come to you as a framework to organize things. Maybe every first line is a certain syntax or template. “I am…” “You can count on me to…” “I’m the sorta person who…”
These are great writing prompts to start the mining process and generate three scenes.
Then, you do what authors must do in order to sell a book, and that’s the art of narrative persuasion. (My phrase for what this college essay thing is.) You pull back the camera into the clear blue sky and declare, like a god on high, exactly what the logline is, the pitch is.
Accept me and you’ll get a creative, resilient, and stubborn soul (in the best kind of way).
Accept me and you’ll get a loyal, artistic, wacky kid.
Accept me and you’ll get the kind of innovator who leaves clubs better than they found them.
For an amazing resource on how your essay can follow some fun movie plot structures, plus model essays, visit College Essay Guy’s “The Ten Types of Movie (and Personal Statement) Plots.”
It’s Not an AI Bot
Are you willing to be lost sometimes in this process? Are you willing to take some detours to find your heart’s desire? Can you stare at a bunch of snapshots of your life until the whole scene comes into focus?
Any author will tell you that there’s a lot of fumbling through dark woods if you want to come out the other side with a novel, a screenplay, an essay, or a short story.
Dorothy got both to the Emerald City and her humble home base, thanks to the courage, intellect, and heart of her three companions, and Glinda, and the Munchkins. You can call us college essay coaches those sort of of guides on the side, singing, Follow, follow, follow…
Trust me, it feels pretty amazing when it all coalesces into a self-portrait that truly represents you. It’s one that colleges will be grateful to have, since they’ll know exactly who they’re bringing to campus. It’s one that leaves you content that you left your Self on the page, your heart and your soul.
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