How to start writing your essay, or I don’t know what to write about!

Your college essay: I don't know what to write!

Summary: Make a list of ten or twenty possible topics. Rank them. Ask your family and friends for what they think you should write. Then, ask family and friends which ones they like.

In this article, I'm going to answer one of the most common questions I get: How do I start my personal statement?

First, this article covers the brainstorming aspect of coming up with content for your essay. If you're wondering how to actually write your first paragraph, please check back for an article on that (which I'm still working on).

Handwriting in notebook
Photographer: Annie Spratt | Source: Unsplash

Pro-tip: Keep a master document where you will write your essays. Give it a meaningful title like UC application or Yale short-answer questions. PLEASE AVOID titles like Untitled or My Essays! (You’ll never find them again when you need them.)

If you’re feeling confused about writing your college admissions essay, I’m going to guess that you are feeling two challenges: First, you’re not sure how to start. Second, you feel that you don’t have all that much to write about. These are very common sentiments, especially if you haven’t applied for something before, such as a scholarship or admission to high school.

Let’s tackle the first challenge I mentioned first—how to start planning your essay. (If you’re wondering about how to actually write the first paragraph of your essay, I will post that in the future.)

For this article, let’s assume that the college that you’re applying to is asking you to write about overcoming hardship. It could be any topic, though—academic interests, future goals, academic preparation, etc., but since adversity is commonly written about in applications essays, it’s as good a topic to write about as any other.

Keep a positive attitude while writing your personal statements

So, my first advice is this—try to think about yourself positively. Think about all your great qualities. Yes, I know it can be hard to think of them, but I’m sure you have some! (It’s important to keep this mindset during the whole process.) You are a good person, have good qualities, and will make next year’s freshperson class even better.

Brainstorm ideas for topics to write about

Your next step is to brainstorm, to come up with a lot of possible topics, ie, hardships that you’ve overcome. This could be anything from struggling in a history class to working a part-time job while you were in high school (my particular situation growing up).

Because you’re brainstorming, you will want to come up with any ol’ thing that could fit, because you never know what will work. So your list might look something like this. (And in case it wasn’t clear, the following list consists of ideas only, most of which you would reject.)

Some examples

Here goes, and yes, I will take this chance to inject some humor:

  • Struggling to pick up a pencil, only to discover that my nephew had pranked me by gluing it to the table. (Nope, even if it was hard!)
  • Helping a friend through depression. (Probably not, since this would show one of your qualities, not your hardship per se, and it could appear that helping other people was a hardship to you.)
  • Learning to get used to coming home to an empty apartment because my mother works two jobs. (Yes, this one has potential.)
  • Having to learn English because I immigrated in second grade. (Be careful—this happened a long time ago, and generally you want to write about something more recent. Also, at least with my students, people write about this a lot.)
  • Transferring to a new school in ninth grade. (Maybe, but the colleges could think that you’ll have similar difficulty when you start college.)
  • Losing weight. (Could work, and I can relate to this one!)
  • Getting diagnosed with migraines. (Maybe.)
  • Having a pet die. (Probably wouldn’t work, but yay, you’re putting down everything you can think of.)
  • Ordering thin crust, but getting deep dish instead. (No, not really, unless you connect it to being shy and learning how to speak up.)
  • Breaking up with your SO. (No, as a rule, we don’t talk about relationships in college applications.)

So those are just some ideas. I'm sure you have your own hardships (as we all do), but I hope these have given you an idea. The point is that you come up with a list of candidates and work your way through them.

Get feedback from other people

Before you start ranking your own ideas, please ask your family and friends. You can literally just say, Hey, could you tell me some of the hardships you think I’ve overcome? I’m working on a college essay, and maybe I’m missing something. You’d be surprised—sometimes people will point out qualities to you that you didn’t realize you had or that you didn’t think people noticed.

Rank your ideas or choose the best candidates

The next step is either to pick out a few that you like or maybe rank them. Ranking doesn’t need to be exact, since you’re probably going to end up just writing on one of the topics, probably the one at the top.

Make sure your essay topic is a good one

At some point, you need to make sure that what you wrote about is unique and portrays you positively. For example, everyone struggles at the start of high school, so maybe you shouldn’t write about that, unless you have a compelling story. (And again, make sure you connect it to the most recent version of you, not the 3.5-years-ago you.) You also wouldn’t want to write about getting caught shoplifting or even having friends getting caught shoplifting, since colleges generally don’t like to offer admission to criminals. (Well, if you grew up in a rough area, but wanted to turn your life around, and you did, it could easily work.)

Start writing your essay!

Finally, pick one and start writing! Or make an outline first, if that’s what works for you. It’s possible that the topic you chose won't work, and you’ll have to go with your runner-up choice, but don’t worry—as long as you can write a compelling story, you’ll be good.

And remember, how you say something is more important than what you say. Most of us lead outwardly boring lives (go to school, do homework, go to sleep, lather, rinse, repeat), so it’s our inner life that adds interest to you as an applicant to college.

You got this! The most important step is starting the process—create your document, and start typing. Just start. Doesn’t need to be perfect just yet. Just type.

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