It’s the fall of senior year, and you’ve been working on your personal statement for weeks. You discovered your perfect, heaven-sent topic months ago, and lately, you’ve been breezing through the writing.
You decided you would write about the summer your dad taught you how to play baseball.
You open the essay with the first time the ball comes barreling toward you, and you hear that sweet crack of the bat hitting the ball, you see your dad’s face light up, and you start running. You walk us through how this evolved into a love of the game and how it shaped your relationship with your dad, ultimately resulting in a father-daughter commitment to go to at least one game at every MLB stadium in the country before you graduate from high school.
It feels sweet and sincere and genuine, and it strikes that delicate balance between entertainment and depth. It’s perfect. You feel ahead of the game, on top of the world. You’re golden, baby.
And then, BAM, like a freight train crashing into you, head-on, out of nowhere—suddenly, you HATE it. You see it with fresh eyes and realize it’s the worst thing you’ve ever written. It’s juvenile and cliché and simplistic. And it’s so…traditional. Baseball, really? It’s not edgy or avant-garde enough for a school like Brown, your dream school. Sound the alarms! You’re totally panicked.
What do you do?
Well first, I won’t tell you not to panic. “Relax” is probably the last thing you want to hear. Panic, if you need to.
But then, take a step back, and approach it critically. Hating something doesn’t mean it’s bad—this is key. The “hate” you’re feeling for your work could be a lot of things:
1) Your taste is better than what you’re able to produce at the moment, so your work doesn’t live up to your vision—aka the Ira Glass “gap.”
Legendary storyteller and host of This American Life, Ira Glass, has this indispensable insight for anyone doing creative work: There is a “gap” between the quality of work you create at the start of your career and your creative potential. This is hugely frustrating because your TASTE is solid, and it’s telling you that your work isn’t good enough. Your work doesn’t live up to your vision, so you hate it.
The solution: Keep practicing your writing skills outside of your personal statement. The only way to improve your writing is to create more of it: practice makes perfect, even with this. Keep writing, hone your skills, and then return to your PS.
2) You’re too early in the process and need to keep drafting.
Ernest Hemingway said it best: “the first draft of anything is s**t.” Even the best writers of all time know this. You won’t hit a home run on your first draft, right out of the gate.
The solution: Recognize that works evolve as you draft them. You just need to experiment. Maybe you need a new angle or a different structure? Maybe you need to incorporate more action and less exposition? Whatever it is, the best way to find it is to keep drafting, drafting, drafting.
3) You’re worrying too much about sounding a certain way, so you’re not sounding like your real self.
If you’re trying hard to come off as brilliant, savvy, mature, or whatever other traits you think admissions committees are looking for, you’re not going to sound like yourself and it will show. That discrepancy between your written words and your authentic voice will be grating, especially to you.
The solution: Step away from the essay and try to pinpoint your authentic voice. Look at journal entries if you already keep a journal, or start keeping one if you don’t. Have a conversation with a friend and record it, with their permission. Listen to podcasts that are conversation-heavy, for insight into what natural dialogue sounds like. Try to figure out your real, natural voice, and then take another stab at that essay.
4) You’re too close to it.
You know how when you read a word over and over and over again, it starts to look and sound wrong, like it must be missing a letter or two? That can happen with your writing, too. If you’ve been looking at it constantly, you won’t be able to see it clearly anymore.
The solution: Take some time away from it, and get a fresh set of eyes to look it over. Take a few days away from the essay, without reading it or even thinking about it, and instead have friends, parents, mentors, teachers, or even people you don’t know well read it, and see what they think. They might be better judges of your writing than you are at this point. See how else your parents and friends can help you with your application.
5) It is, in fact, just plain bad, and you need to start over.
If you’ve spent a solid amount of time on your topic selection and writing, this one is probably the least likely, but it’s still manageable.
The solution: Take a deep breath, and set it aside. Recognize that it’s not a wasted effort, because it’s taught you what works and what doesn’t. Then, speed-draft a few topics, see what lands, dig in, draft, and move forward.
Your problem could be one of these or a combination, but no matter what, it is soluble. Has this happened to you? Tell us about your experience in the comments.
And if you’re stuck somewhere, don’t hesitate to get a free consultation.
Now, read up and get smart:
- College Parent FAQs
- Supplemental Essay Analyses 2019-20
- Admissionado College Case Studies
- Admissionado’s Guide to Senior Year
- Admissionado’s Guide to Junior Year
- Essay Brainstorming Guide
- Admissionado’s Guide to Elite College Admissions
That’ll get you started. Still have questions? Reach out, and let’s gab.
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