While we are confident that you can do a great deal of this work on your own—this digging deep and thinking carefully—do not underestimate the value of other eyes. Therefore, we encourage you to take the following advice as you write, revise, and improve your personal narrative:
Show your essays to others. Make sure you think carefully about whom to ask for help (hint: your buddy from your field hockey team may be less helpful than a trusted adult teacher or mentor). Next, always remember that you are the sole author and the sole subject of your masterpiece.
When you ask for help, make sure you know exactly what you are asking for. Have specific questions in mind for anyone who reads your essay. “What do you think about my essay?” is a question that will yield several unhelpful answers (“Great,” “Could be better,” “You’re the next Montaigne!”), whereas “Do you think I have chosen a captivating ‘hook’ for my message?” has a better chance of getting you a useful answer.
Carefully consider all feedback as well as its source. Certain individuals are much better at helping you with the big picture, while others tend to nit pick. Both are valuable, but they are most constructive when employed properly and deliberately.
Be careful of getting too much input. If you take all of the advice and criticism you receive, you may run the risk of losing clarity about your message and yourself. In short, too many editors can spoil any manuscript. So take all criticism under advisement while never losing sight of the fact that you alone have the authority to write and revise your personal narrative.
Realize that no essay is perfect. No matter how many hours you spend writing and working, your essay will never be perfect, because language itself is incapable of capturing who you are and conveying it to any reader. Though you should strive to minimize obfuscation, someone will always fail to appreciate that witty turn of phrase, central wisdom, or vivid story.
Getting down to brass tacks, we’d like you to turn your attention back to your new and improved drafts. Remember the essays you have been writing as you have been reading. Even if none of them stands out as an obvious personal admissions essay, there is bound to be one vignette worth exploring. If you can’t see it, try treating your essays as magic eye images and stare at them until something vivid emerges. And if you really struggle, you can always prime your writerly brain with a few additional free writes, exercises, or Nerd Libs. It is all vignettable.
You never know, either. Something that may seem like “only a vignette” could turn into a full essay in and of itself. As a matter of fact, one of our consultants wrote the personal essay for his own undergraduate admissions about a single bump in the road in front of his house. Likewise, another of our consultants wrote her essay about the ceiling of her childhood bedroom.
So, what are you waiting for? We know you can write at least one vignette about the fruit you picked to represent yourself in our intro survey. Why don’t you open up a blank Word document and try to make a list of all of the things you have penned in this book that could possibly become vignettes:
List of Vignettable topics
There are only twenty spots on that list, but as you no doubt noticed as you were going back through this blog, there are many more things here that you could write about.
See how splitting up the separate vignettes (Vignette 1, Vignette 2, Vignette 3, Vignette 4) in fact helps us see how the essay works as a whole—and helps the writer/editor (you/you) have a clearer sense of how to make each part function at its best. If you were building a house, you would want to build each part separately, but with the entire structure in mind. The same goes here, where it would behoove you to develop your personal essay as several different vignettes tied together under a common raison d’être.
Splitting this personal essay into vignettes tells us the basic structure that we’re striving for: first “The Fireplace Incident,” then “Building a Bridge from ‘The Fireplace Incident’ to the Concepts of Success and Failure,” then “The Toddler ‘Mr. Destructo’ grows into the young adult ‘Mr. Destructo’—and goes to school,” and finally “Hurtling toward the future.” If you don’t have this kind of understanding of how your essay works, you run the risk of letting your parts blur together—of being redundant or excluding vital information.
This essay would lose so much of its strength if Mr. Destructo had dwelled too long on any one topic. On the flip side, think how much weaker this essay would be if Mr. Destructo had forgotten to include “Hurtling toward the future,” or if he’d forgotten to tell us about how his accident-prone childhood translates into his ideas about success and failure, or if he’d forgotten to tell us about how his approach contributes to his academic life. Although the essay certainly demonstrates good writing, its true brilliance take place in the space between the words, which represent the hours of thoughtful revision that Mr. Destructo—who we’ll call Ryan—dedicated to his work.
Instead of appearing as a stereotypical student-athlete with a reckless streak on the field and in life, Ryan took honest stock of the child he was, the teenager he had become, and the college student he wanted to be. Guided by the work he did with his Veritas consultant, Ryan drew confidence and pride from his willingness to face any challenge. Even though his impetuous behavior once led to the ER, he began to see how it might lead to adulthood.
Although Ryan saw his zest for novelty and adventure as an unbridled virtue, his first few drafts suggested he was a reckless thrill-seeking teenager. His prowess on the athletic field, however, suggested he might be a liability in a college dormitory—something no admissions officer wants to wonder. As he revised, Ryan not only found a better voice for the page but also recognized that the story he had long told himself about himself was not entirely true. His days as a concussed youth made for a compelling story but had since ceded to maturity and balance in recent years—and far fewer visits to the ER.
Most of all, Ryan recast his mistakes as valuable lessons for himself and others. Mentoring younger teammates, Ryan saw his own experiences in a new light. Overall, the act of writing led to a worldview that would end up serving Ryan in the admission (and scholarship) process more than he ever expected.
As you begin to contemplate and write about your own life on a more micro level, try splitting your essay into vignettes. Take that introductory paragraph—the one we first brought up all the way back in Section I when we introduced the concept of showing, not telling. Separating your introduction into a vignette might grab the reader’s attention while helping you answer this crucial question: “Does the way I tell my story best represent the person I was, am, and will be?”
Vignette Four: Hurtling toward the future
Being injury-prone is not an adjective that people normally would want to be associated with their identity. I find that it is one of my best qualities. Not the getting injured part in itself, but for what it symbolizes in me. The heart that I display throughout various aspects of my life is not often seen in others. Some of my peers work hard and get perfect grades, some of them play well and compete at a much higher skill level than I ever will. But it is the fire, that deep burning passion and determined self-motivation and will that I see in myself that separates me from the others. I am willing to do what is necessary to succeed and I know that there is no chance that I will ever lose that trait. As I go forward in life, I expect that there will be other injuries, disappointments, and surely failures. However, I know that I will not be fearful of reassessing, reevaluating, and recommitting myself over and over again.
Going forward, my life will include more failure, disappointment, and perhaps even visits to the ER. However, I remain willing to take necessary risks. Though no longer reckless, occasional risk and failure helps me reassess, reevaluate, and recommit myself to improvement. I also realize sharing certain missteps can benefit myself and others. Recommencing school as a freshman without my parents’ watch, I also recognize the opportunity to learn from those upperclassmen taking leaps ahead of me.
As a child, tripping and slitting my eyebrow open might not have been because I was diving for the winning goal during a soccer game, it might just have been because I was too intense for my immature body to control. However, as I developed and grew, my more recent injuries have been due to my complete, 100% commitment to what I am doing. Snowboarding, playing soccer, mountain biking, and other physical activities demand concentration and commitment to perform at a high level. Sometimes I get in over my head and end up getting hurt, but as it is said, “No pain, no gain”. I am always right back up on my feet trying again, trying to improve. This is the attitude that I carry with me wherever I am in all of my activities, not just athletics. In my roles at school (being a peer leader, editor of the yearbook, or fundraising), doing my school work, joining in classroom participation, when completing projects, in my summer jobs, when dealing with my friends, as well as with the other random challenges I face, I approach them all with my philosophy of intensity and commitment to being the best that I can be. I know that if I am diligent, I will reach my goal, even if I get knocked down on the way.
My injuries do not show weakness, nor evidence failure. I know that I learn more from mistakes and when I undertake something unusual or difficult, than I do from easily skating through with the ordinary or with the run of the mill. I am proud to show off casts, cuts, scars, and slings because I am displaying my need to constantly push myself to my limits in things that challenge me in an effort to display my best efforts. My parents claim that I need to “think before I act”, and I know that it’s their job to protect me. But I do think before I act. I understand that I can hurt myself, I recognize that can fail, but mostly I think of what will happen if, not when, I succeed. Yes, sometimes spontaneity can be a bad thing, but I find that it is a proven way to find out what we really want to do, what we really are capable of, before fear or prudence convinces us otherwise. And the satisfaction and accomplishment of achievement after having finally made that leap, especially after stumbling along the way, is something special that people who do not push the limits will ever enjoy
The ability to learn from failure has therefore impacted the rest of my life. As a snowboarder and soccer player hurling my body with abandon, I have developed both commitment and passion. Though packed powder and grass are much softer than brick, I’ve accumulated my share of injuries and stories on the slopes and field as well. Never hesitant, I recollect my failures and make sure never to stumble the same way twice. As I share my experiences, I am progressively prepared for the challenges to come.
At my high school, a small group of upperclassmen is selected to help the freshman class adjust to an unfamiliar academic environment. As such, one of my current challenges involves guiding fourteen freshmen through their sports, classes, and social life. During this mentorship process, I am often asked about my own mistakes and how I overcame them. Fortunately, I have been preparing for this role my entire life. Just like in the ER, my candid honesty helps me connect with and guide my group of freshmen. For instance, in my first two years of school, I often leapt into courses that were less stimulating and interesting than I had hoped. Therefore, I taught my students to use caution and consideration where I had not. By sharing my mistakes, I hopefully dissuaded others from similar paths.
Tuesday we broke down the first vignette in a sample essay. Here’s the next component.
My activities never involved malicious destruction, but demonstrated my need to get everything done quickly, with a maximum of physical effort. “The faster the better!” Each day brought new challenges that I instantly knew I had to try and conquer, such as my effort to confirm whether I could jump all the way from the couch to the raised stone hearth on the fireplace. (The answer was no, I could not. I earned six stitches from that one). As I grew up, I have somewhat grown out of my reputation as “Mr. Destructo”, however, I have not eliminated my tendency to push the limit and receive the resulting injuries. In the past six or seven years I have had three broken wrists, two broken collar bones, three concussions, and a few other trips to the E.R. or “safety checks”. I do not take part in overly risky behavior every day, all the time, but I have never grown out of my inner desire to commit myself totally, and to push myself strenuously in the activities in which I participate, and in pursuit of the goals I want to achieve.
By age eight I had been to the emergency room seven times due to accidents similar to the “fireplace incident.” My parents even dubbed me “Mr. Destructo” for my inadvertent tendency to damage property and self. Broken, sprained, concussed, or gashed, I always arrived with a new injury and an accompanying story to share with the hospital staff.
As I chronicled my daredevil acts, the nurses smiled and laughed at my unwavering enthusiasm. Never present for my triumphs, the staff must have imagined my life as reckless. Of course, there were times when I landed my leaps. Success, however, only escalated the height of my courage. Never afraid, I always looked forward to the next challenge.
By age eight I had been to the emergency room seven times, not due to health issues, but because of accidents. By age ten I had received stitches four times. I had suffered injuries which ranged from cracking my head open and brain concussions, to cutting my chin open. At an early age it was obvious that I was destined to live a life with many injuries. My parents dubbed me “Mr. Destructo”, reflecting my love of destroying, jumping, crashing, breaking, and trashing everything I touched – including my own body.
“Hey, Mom and Dad, watch this!” I proudly yell with my toddler voice from atop the couch, arms splayed.
My parents, knowing shouts of caution are futile, shut their eyes as I focus on my landing zone, the fireplace hearth. I leap, expecting victory, as my mom grabs her keys for another trip to the ER.Tears, blood, and pride pour from my body – another valiant effort turned destructive.
The personal essay. The extracurricular essay. The supplements. The short answers. It may not feel like it, but all of the writing you have to do for these college applications comprise one big, beautiful panorama, which we will distill to a nuanced portrait of the person you are and the person you want to become.
As you already know, admissions officers want to see that person. To that end, they ask you to answer many questions. Here we’ve included ten prompts from actual college applications—many of which you will probably see on more than one application—and space for you to do a free write for each one. (Reminder: a free write is where you let it all hang out for about 7 – 10 minutes.) You should do at least five of these.
1. Describe the world you come from. How has this world shaped your dreams and aspirations?
2. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced.
3. Write a letter to your future roommate.
4. Tell us about something you do simply for the pure pleasure of it.
5. Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at University/College X appeals to you and why?
6. Tell us about a book that is important to you.
7. If you had the opportunity to bring any person to a place that is special to you, who would you bring and why?
8. Considering both the specific school or program you are applying to and the broader University/College X community, what academic, research, and/or extracurricular paths do you see yourself exploring?
9. Describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you.
10. Who is the person you dream of becoming?
You’re well on your way to tackling all of your applications.
You simply can’t fake sincerity.
Agencies that offer certainty, that have developed tactics meant to get you into top colleges, or that give a breakdown percentage chance that you’ll get in to one college or another—they rob education of, well, education. The best bit of advice we can give is this: discover purpose in what you do, a purpose that blows past the meek and ugly perimeter of accolade.
Dr. Seuss on writing from “Dr. Seuss’s Green-Eggs-and-Ham World,” Judith Frutig, The Christian Science Monitor, May 12, 1978.
(The same quote could just as easily have been said about drafting essays for college admissions officers.)