If All Else Fails
To get the most benefit out of this section, put your anxieties aside. Dont think about what the admissions committee wants, dont worry about grammar or style, and especially dont worry about what anyone would think. Worries like these hamper spontaneity and creativity. Focus instead on writing quickly and recording every thought you have the instant to you have it. You will know that you are performing these exercises correctly if you are relaxing and having fun.
Stream of Consciousness
Take 20 minutes to answer each of the questions: Who are you? What do you want? Start with whatever comes to mind first, and write without pausing for the entire time. Don't limit yourself to any one area of your life such as your career. Just let yourself go, be honest, and have fun. You might be surprised by what kind of results can come from this type of free association.
If you have the discipline to practice this technique for a week, you may end up doing it for the rest of your life. Keep paper and a pen at your bedside. Set your alarm clock twenty minutes early, and when you are still in bed and groggy with sleep, start writing. Write about anything that comes to mind, as fast as you can, and do not stop until you have filled a page or two.
Keep a journal for a few weeks, especially if you are stuck and your brainstorming seems to be going nowhere. Record not what you do each day but your responses to and thoughts about each days experiences.
Write down your top ten favorites in the following areas: movies, books, songs, musicians, sports, paintings, historical eras, and famous people. Step back and look at the lists objectively. What do they say about you? Which favorites are you most passionate about? How have these favorites affected your outlook, opinions, or direction?
Choose a word from your questions such as "influence," "strengths," "career," "diversity," or "goals" and brainstorm around it. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping. Write down everything you can think of that relates to the topic, including any single words that come to mind.
Hopefully the exercises in the last section successfully stirred your thoughts and animated your pen. If so, then it is time to impose more focus on your brainstorming. These next exercises help you do just that. They concentrate on finding the specific points and details that can be used to answer each of your questions. But as you work on them, be sure to retain the open mind and creative attitude with which you approached the previous exercises.
First, make a list of all the questions you have to answer for each school, leaving plenty of space next to each. Work on the following exercises proactively, keeping these questions in mind as you write. When you have uncovered a point or example that could potentially be used in response to one of them, make a note of it next to the question and then go right back to the brainstorming. If you can apply one situation or experience to multiple questions, do so. Dont censor yourself. At this stage of the writing process, more is better you can worry about honing and culling later. The objective now is to accumulate multiple items for each question.
The Chronological Method
Start from childhood and record any and all special or pivotal experiences that you remember. Go from grade to grade, and job-to-job, noting any significant lessons learned, achievements reached, painful moments endured, or obstacles overcome. Also, include your feelings about those occurrences as you remember them. If you are a visual person, it might help to draw a timeline. Do not leave out any significant event.
Because so many questions ask about your past, this exercise can help you uncover material that will likely be used in several places. A few schools will ask you directly about your childhood and have you highlight a memory from your youth. Dont automatically discount memories that you think will seem trite or silly. A childhood memory can be used, for example, to demonstrate a long-standing passion or to emphasize how an aspect of your character is so ingrained that it has been with you since youth. The bottom line is this: if an experience from your childhood was meaningful to you, it doesnt matter what anyone else thinks.
Assess Your Accomplishments
Write down anything you are proud of doing, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem. Do not limit your achievements to your career. If you have overcome a difficult personal obstacle, be sure to list this too. If something is important to you, it speaks volumes about who you are and what makes you tick. Some accomplishments will be obvious, such as any achievement that received public acknowledgment. Others are less so, and many times the most defining moments of our lives are those we are inclined to dismiss.
Many examples of accomplishments can be found in our undergraduate essay packages, ranging from winning a martial arts competition to helping a friend with Downs Syndrome to winning a "Grip Test" in gym class. The main thing to remember when brainstorming is not to worry about how big or small the accomplishment is in anyone elses eyes. Simply write down whatever comes to mind, choosing what was meaningful to you, personally.
List Your Skills
Do an assessment of your skills similar to what you did for your accomplishments. Begin by looking at the accomplishments you listed for the last exercise and listing the skills that these accomplishments demonstrate. When you have a list of words, start brainstorming on specific scenarios that demonstrate these skills. Pretend that you are defending these skills in front of a panel of judges. Stop only when you have proven each point to the best of your ability. Some of your skills will be obvious, such as artistic, musical, or athletic abilities. Others will be more subtle (but just as important!).
Analyze Personality Traits
Take advantage of the often fuzzy distinction between skills and personality traits, and if you are having trouble listing and defending your skills, shift the focus to your qualities and characteristics instead. Make a few columns on a sheet of paper. In the first one, list some adjectives you would use to describe yourself. In the next one, list the words your best friend would use. Use the other columns for other types of people perhaps one for your favorite teacher and another for family members or classmates.
When you are done, see which words come up the most often. Then group them together and list the different situations in which you have exhibited these characteristics. How effectively can you illustrate or prove that you possess these qualities? Proving your points is important. One writer, for example, wrote about his two defining characteristics: pragmatism and idealism. He chose good qualities, but his essay would have benefited had he provided better examples of how he has actively demonstrated them.
Note Major Influences
You can refer back to your "Top Ten" lists for help getting started with this exercise. Did a particular book or quote make you rethink your life? Was there a particular person who shaped your values and views? A relationship can be good material for an essay, particularly one that challenged you to look at people in a different way. Perhaps you had a wise and generous mentor from whom you learned a great deal. Have you had an experience that changed how you see the world or defines who you are? What details of your life, special achievements and pivotal events have helped shape you and influenced your goals?
Some admissions officers caution against using a parent as an influence, simply because it is done so often. But some of the essayists featured in our packages write about the strong influence their parents have had on them and do it well. No subject is truly taboo.
Many questions ask specifically about certain influences, such as a favorite teacher, book, or character. But this exercise can be helpful even if your questions dont specifically ask for it. If they do, dont worry yet about making final decisions. Let your mind wander free for now, have fun, and list as many possibilities as you can.
Identify Your Goals
The first step of this exercise is to let loose and write down anything that comes to mind in response to the following questions: What are your wildest dreams? What did you want to be when you were a kid? If you could do or be anything right now, regardless of skill, money, or other restrictions, what would it be? Think as broadly as you wish, and do not limit yourself to career goals. Will you have kids? What kind of house will you live in and what kinds of friends will you have? What would you do if you were so rich that you didnt have to work?
Second, play the alternate realities game. Chose your two favorite subjects, and think about the way your life would look in 20 years if you pursued either one as a college major and then a career. Dont worry if your career is broadly defined. College admissions committees understand that you will not know exactly what you want to do with your life when they ask questions about your career goals. But they do want to know that you have at least thought about it and thought about the role that their school will play in your goals.
If, on the other hand, you do already feel passionate about a particular career, by all means play it up! One of the essayists in our Academics package, for example, has already chosen the career of Psychoneuroimmunology. Its very rare for a high school student to have such specific and unusual plans. It is certainly not necessary in fact, had this applicant not sufficiently supported his goal with evidence that he knew about the field (because of his parents work) and had some personal reasons for choosing it, he would have come across as simply trying to impress the committee always a huge mistake!
If All Else Fails
If these exercises have proved more than a little difficult for you, and you find that you are still struggling to find something worth writing about, it could be a sign that you need to step back and reassess the schools you have decided to apply to. Truly stubborn writers block could indicate a number of different problems that should be addressed before you begin the application process. It could mean, for example, that you are ambivalent about the schools you have chosen. Make sure that the schools are your choices and that you are going for your reasons. Or it could mean that you have not adequately researched your choices and are not confident that your choices are the right ones.
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