Around this time of year, high school seniors across the US and around the world are crafting their college application essays and personal statements. They’re sharing their life experiences with people they’ve never met who will make a decision that will impact the rest of their lives. For students, parents, and teachers, this is a stressful time.
I remember how difficult it was to write my college application essays and personal statements. I wrote plenty of essays for classes, the SATs, AP tests, and IB exams. I could write about almost any subject in an hour or less using a standard 5 paragraph structure. But there’s one subject I didn’t learn how to write about: myself.
In Model UN, I’m thankful to have found the experience, help, and inspiration that helped me through the college application process. I reflected on my role as a Secretary-General leading a 200+ person program that had seen 5 different advisors in 3 years. I reached out to MUN alumni who were attending the dream schools to which I was applying. And while writing my essay, I realized that Model UN was a way for me to express myself.
College application essays and the personal statement are opportunities to write about meaningful experiences. Not every high school student who does MUN should write about it. But if you read Best Delegate, then Model UN is most likely a meaningful part of your high school career. If so, then here’s a question that might help you:
What does Model UN mean to you?
This question is not intended to be the actual prompt for your essay, but more of a starting point for brainstorming topics. What is it about Model UN that means so much to you? There’s probably something you get out of MUN that relates to other, more personal areas of your life.
Do you have a story – MUN-related or not – that says something about you? A powerful story will evoke some emotion from you – that’s how you know it’s meaningful. And if you communicate it well, then whoever reads your essay will feel some of that emotion, too.
Let’s frame the college application essay and personal statement by boiling them down into their simplest form: a piece of communication. You are telling another person something important about you. This means that you need to A) know what’s important about you, and B) describe it in a way that’s easy to understand and remember.
With this framework in mind, here are 10 tips on how to write your college application essay and personal statement:
Know What’s Important About You
1. Seek solitude. The only way you’re really going to understand yourself is to be by yourself. This means being physically alone – in your room, in a library, or at a park – as well as mentally alone – turn off your cell phone, sign off Facebook, unplug the Internet. You want to be in a place – literally and figuratively – where you can be undisturbed and able to reflect.
2. Make time. You can’t rush self-reflection – it takes time. And you can’t schedule it by blocking off a couple hours on the weekends. It’s more of a daily exercise, even if it’s only 5 minutes – as long as it’s 5 minutes of solitude.
3. Search your feelings. As you sit down to brainstorm essay topics, your mind might wander to recent events, tasks you need to do, or something completely random. Instead of cycling through different thoughts, focus on your feelings. Since you’re in the throes of college admissions, you might be anxious, nervous, or afraid. Push past that. Think about how you got to where you are – to this point in your student career, to where you live now, to your personal situation – and see what emotions that brings up. Different stories or images might come to mind that are associated with what you’re already feeling. These are potential topics for your essay.
4. Give yourself perspective. After getting emotional, try becoming detached from your experience. Examine yourself from points of view other than your own. Question your assumptions. You might learn something new about a situation you thought you knew. This might be a way to demonstrate personal growth in your essay.
5. Be authentic. At the end of the day, you have to be honest with yourself and in your essay. The college application is not a test; it’s an examination. A test checks to see whether you know something about a subject or not. An examination is a chance to show what you know. In this case, the subject is you. College is rooted in ancient Greek philosophy, and one important lesson is to “know thyself.”
Be Easy to Understand and Remember
6. Share a story. Stories are easy to remember because they’re logical – they have a beginning, middle, and end. You start by describing a situation; you continue by explaining an event that changed the situation; and the end is a personal lesson. Start with a small example and then draw larger meaning from it.
7. Set a theme. The academic metrics, extracurricular activities, and other interests on your application might look like they have nothing to do with one another. The essay is a chance to unify the different parts of your application by drawing a common thread between them, i.e. the things that are important about you.
8. Reach out for help. Remember, the college application is not a test – it’s okay to ask for help. Share your essays with people you trust. You want feedback from people who know you and are strong writers. Ideally, they attended or currently attend the colleges to which you’re applying.
9. Write multiple drafts. You might have several potential essay topics, different ways to write about them, and tons of feedback from various people. The only way you’re going to know what works is go through the exercise of writing multiple drafts.
10. Relax. The most important personal lesson I learned through Model UN is that you can’t worry about the things outside your control – who’s in your committee, whether your chair likes you, if you win an award – you have to focus on the things within your control – getting up to make a speech, doing the best you can at a conference, having fun.
This lesson applies beyond Model UN – decisions made by admissions committees are outside your control – choosing to apply and putting together the best application you can are the only things within your control. Strive, don’t stress, for success – let success come to you. And realize that college admissions does not define you – you do. Put together the best applications you can, submit them, and enjoy your final year of high school.
I know that these tips are difficult to practice, but so is the college admissions process. The most difficult things to do are often the things most worth doing.
“The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”
Randy Pausch, “The Last Lecture”
I try to practice these tips as I write my own Best Delegate articles, which often begin as personal statements and end as personal lessons. I didn’t learn how to write about myself in high school, but I’ve had to figure it out as I’ve devoted more time to this blog – and I’m still learning. MUN is an inspirational experience – that’s what Model UN means to me.
What does Model UN mean to you? How did you write your college application essay and personal statement? Let us know in the comments!