3. Make a list of anecdotes, childhood memories, or stories about yourself. Then choose one and make it your “vehicle.”
Finally, you should conclude your brainstorming session by searching for a vehicle: an anecdote that you can use to frame your personal statement.
You can use anecdotes in your personal statement in a number of ways. Some students choose to open with one, others close with one, and still others will use two or three anecdotes in order to add color and rhetorical flair to the points they are trying to make about themselves. The best types of anecdotes are the ones that tell the most about you or give insight into your character.
When we help students write their personal statements, we usually begin by brainstorming a few potential anecdotes to use in your essay. But if you are wondering what the point is of using an anecdote—Why use one at all when I could save words and just talk about myself?—it’s useful to first understand why telling a story or two makes your personal statement stronger.
Ultimately, you will want your personal statement to communicate something about your character and personality that is unique and appealing to schools. When an adcom reads your personal statement, they are looking to hear about you in general, they are looking to learn something unique or special about you (so they can differentiate you from other applicants), and they are also looking for evidence that you would be a valuable addition to their community. But the fact of the matter is that these are fairly broad and vague directives to write about if you don’t have something specific to focus on.
This is where the anecdotes come in to save the day! They help instigate a conversation about yourself, your personality, your identity, and your character while also giving you something concrete to talk about. This is why we call it a “vehicle”—it can exist in its own right, but it carries with it important information about you as well.
Now that you know what the purpose of this vehicle is, it should be a little easier to brainstorm the anecdote(s) that you choose to frame your personal statement will carry with it messages about you, the writer. If you are not yet sure what to write about in your personal statement, you can start brainstorming anecdotes from your childhood, from favorite family stories to fond memories, from hilarious vacation mishaps to particularly tender moments. Do your parents have favorite stories to tell about you? Write those into your list as well.
Once you have a collection of stories to work with, you may begin to see certain patterns forming. Perhaps all of your favorite stories take place in the same setting—a vacation home that meant a lot to you or in the classroom of your favorite teacher. Maybe, you will realize that all of your fondest memories involve a certain activity or hobby of yours. Or, alternatively, you may notice that one story from your childhood mirrors or foreshadows a like, dislike, or accomplishment that would come to fruition later in your life.
It is hard to imagine all of the possible personal statements that could come out of this brainstorming session, but it is almost certain that this exercise will help you come up with several concrete points to make about yourself and provide you with a tangible way to say those things.
If you already know what you want to say about yourself, you can come at the same exercise from another angle: try to think of several anecdotes that could be potential vehicles for the message about yourself that you want to transmit. If you want to illustrate that you love to learn, try to think pointedly about where that love comes from or what you have done that proves this. In this case, remember that any given anecdote can reveal more than one thing about you.
And if after doing these three brainstorming exercises, you still don’t feel ready to write your personal statement, fear not! Writing a personal essay is daunting and won’t be done in three steps, or even three days! For more guidance to tackling your personal essay, check outthis blog post about how to come up with a good personal statement topic,this one on how and when to write it, andthis one parsing through the 5 Common App prompts from the most recent cycle. For a note on being confident, readhere; and check outthis one once you are ready to polish your essay into its finished form!
For more insight about how to present your best self on college applications, consider the CollegeVine Applications Guidance service. Here, you’ll be paired with a personal admissions specialist who can provide step-by-step guidance through the entire application process, including how to best highlight your unique skills, interests, and personal attributes.
Why a green pen? I always carry a green pen because I grade all my students' essays in green. Why green? Because when a student gets an essay back and it's covered in red marks it can tend to look bloody, like a battlefield. But if a student gets an essay back that's covered in green it looks verdant. Also, red means "stop" (like a stoplight), but green says "keep going." And that's the essence I want to communicate to my students: keep going. The green pen in my essence object box is more than a green pen.
I would also place in my essence box a well-worn North Carolina Tarheel blue and white basketball. Why? I came home from the hospital wearing Carolina Blue, so I've been a Carolina fan, almost literally, since birth. I've spent more time on a basketball court than virtually anywhere else (which is why the ball is well-worn), and basketball also represents my connection with my dad: when I was a kid we’d watch Carolina games together and play basketball in the backyard for hours. This basketball is more than a basketball.
I would also have the blue Bible with my name etched on it in gold lettering that my grandma gave me when I was seven. (See how specific I’m getting?) For me, this particular Bible represents my having been raised in the Presbyterian Church. And my parents were missionaries, so you could imagine a lot of who I am today has been shaped by the Sunday morning services we attended at Weaverville Presbyterian Church, to which I would always carry my blue Bible. This Bible is more than a Bible.
You get the idea.
I want you to make a list of 20 objects. (Don’t complain—you are infinitely complex and creative and could come up with a thousand—I’m asking for just 20.)
Important: Don't write what the objects mean to you as I have just done. I just want you to write the objects. So my list would begin like this:
- green Precise v5 extra fine rolling ball pen
- worn-down, rubber North Carolina basketball
- blue Bible with my name stitched on it in gold lettering
- bbq sauce
- annotated copy of The Brothers Karamazov
- friendship bracelet
- black and white composition notebook
- Amelie DVD
- Evanston Hockey t-shirt
…You get the idea.
Just write the objects with a couple details that describe each, no commentary needed yet.
If it helps, put on some music. Let your mind wander.
QUESTIONS TO HELP WITH THE OBJECTS EXERCISE
What’s something you never leave home without?
What’s a snack you crave?
A food that reminds you of your family?
A food that reminds you of home?
A tradition that reminds you of home?
What else reminds you of home?
An object that represents your best friend?
An object that represents your father? Your mother?
Your grandparents, or lack thereof?
Something you loved and lost?
A toy you used to play with as a kid?
Something that makes you laugh?
A book you love? Best movie ever?
Favorite guilty pleasure movie?
An object that represents something abstract that you broke (a heart, a promise)?
An object that represents a regret?
A favorite gift you received? A favorite gift you gave?
An object that represents a secret? (Don’t worry, this stays between us.)
Something about you no one else knows?
Something you stole?
Something you found?
Something that makes you feel safe?
The worst thing that ever happened to you?
The best thing?
The logo on your imaginary business card?
The image you’d like carved into your tombstone?
An object that represents: a smell you love, a smell you hate, a taste you love, a taste you hate, the sweetest sound in the world?
The coolest thing about science?
Something you forgot?
Something old? Something new? Something borrowed? Something blue?
Best thing you ever found in the street?
Best money you ever spent?
Your life lie? Your favorite object?
Something from another country?
Your favorite sentence?
You’d cry if you lost this?
An object that represents someone you’d like to know more about?
Something you’ll never get rid of?
A bad habit?
A perfect moment?
A time you laughed so hard you cried?
A time you cried so hard you laughed?
An image you’ll never forget?
What they’d put in the museum of your life?
The cover image on your first self-titled album?
Three objects from your room?
A near-death experience?
A moment when you were so embarrassed you wanted to disappear?
Worst (actual) nightmare?
When were you most afraid?
If you had a clone, what would you have the clone do?
A time you were speechless?
The moment you left childhood behind?
A quotation you love?
Your favorite photo?
ONCE YOU’VE WRITTEN YOUR LIST OF ESSENCE OBJECTS
Survey your list. Which essences are missing? Is every aspect of you there? Think more abstractly. Think of qualities not yet represented on the list. How could you phrase those qualities in terms of objects? For example, if you keep lists, perhaps a post-it note? Are you easily angered (lighter fluid)? Good at lots of things (a Swiss Army Knife)? Or sharp (an Exacto knife)?
Write down three more objects.
THE PURPOSE OF THE OBJECTS EXERCISE
T.S. Eliot once said: “The only way to express emotion in art is through an objective correlative.”
What’s an objective correlative? It’s an object to which you correlate emotions, memories, and complex meanings. It’s an object that’s more than an object.
Every object in your essence object box is an objective correlative for some important, complex part of you.
Now survey your list. Does it feel pretty familiar? It should.
Your college essay should feel that familiar.
Just to clarify, I’m not saying all of the objects on your list will end up in your final draft, but some of them might. And chances are good that you will write about the essences those objects represent.
The point is this: if you’ve taken the objects exercise seriously and have described a unique set of objects, you should have the material for a compelling personal statement. In fact, you should have the material for dozens of personal essays, but right now we’re just writing one.
The question of course is which one? Which essences or objects should you choose?
That’s the next step.
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