Allison Matlack: College Matters: In 500 words ...
It really shouldn't be that hard - it's only 500 words long and on a topic about which the writer is expert: him or herself. Yet nothing sends seniors into greater paroxysms of anxiety than the personal statement. Fears of sounding arrogant, telling an unworthy story, or simply not knowing where to begin can paralyze even the most able writer.
But when you hit upon the "right" topic and the words flow from your heart as well as your head, this writing exercise can be a deeply rewarding one.
While the personal statement gives the applicant a chance to tell the admissions office something important about him or herself, it is also a chance to show off strong writing abilities, demonstrate the caliber of intellectual skills, and give a unifying theme to the various parts of the application.
While the writing process is different for everyone, sometimes the easiest place to begin is to decide what you most want the reader to know about you and then pick the moment that best illustrates that point.
Ultimately, the event you describe is not nearly as important as the meaning you derive from it. Admissions offices are not impressed by church youth group trips to Peru, hang gliding adventures or bike tours through France in and of themselves - they are looking for an experience that has meaningfully shaped the way you see yourself or the world around you. What matters is the perspective you have gained, not the experience itself.
Once you have chosen your topic, it is important not to let the details of the story overshadow the message you are working to convey. While strong writing skills can, and should, be showcased through descriptive details, given the constraints of the 500 word limit, be judicious in your use of flowery prose and tangential information. Focus on delivering your message, not on telling a story.
Along those lines, there can be a temptation to use inflated vocabulary to impress the reader. More often than not, this is more distracting than clarifying, and the writer's natural voice is muffled. Every effort should be made to use the right word, but that isn't necessarily the one with the most syllables. Choose words that most clearly convey what you want to say, and make your writing sound like you.
Finally, while a good personal statement takes a lot of writing, a great personal statement takes a lot of thinking as well. Talking through ideas with friends, keeping a journal and spending time alone thinking about who you are and what you value most can help bring ideas into sharper focus. Besides revealing the character of the applicant, the personal statement reveals the quality of the author's introspection, global awareness and analytical skills. Clear and purposeful prose reveals clear and purposeful thinking.
It's only 500 words, and by focusing on the message you wish to convey, distilling the experience you write about into the most important moments, and writing in an authentic voice you will produce a personal statement that reveals your character and personality in their best and truest light.
And if you write about what is most meaningful to you, the words should come easily. All 500 of them.
Tim Lee and Allison Matlack are educational consultants at AHP Educational Consulting on Rte. 20 in Sudbury. For over 30 years, AHP has guided students through the college search and application process. For more information, call 978-443-0055 or visit www.ahpeducationalconsulting.com.