Helping students prepare their personal statements is one of my favorite parts of the application process. 

No matter what you read online or hear from others, there are no simple formulas to craft a great essay. However, some fundamental components of the personal statement can give you confidence that you are on the right track.

The Fundamental Components

In a previous post, Star Wars vs. The Office, I shared my thoughts about one of the most fundamental components of choosing a topic for the personal statement: simple is probably better. 

After you’ve zeroed in on a few potential simple topics, there is another essential building block to consider before deciding on the one topic you want to make the centerpiece of the essay. I discovered this second component of the personal statement topic from a friend trained as a journalist. 

In many ways, journalist writing has a lot in common with college application essay writing. My journalist friend explained that when working on a news article, the first step is identifying a clear, straightforward topic. He insists that if the topic or basic idea is not simple and easy to explain, it is not the right topic. Since this is also the case when writing a college application essay, my advice always starts by asking students to choose a simple story from their life that does not restate information already included in other parts of the application (such as an extended description of extracurricular achievements or how they succeeded, or struggled, in a favorite class). 

But my journalist friend also helped me to discover another layer to choosing a topic.

What Makes a Story Go from Good to GREAT?

Identifying the straightforward subject of an essay or news article is the easy part of writing. What makes a topic great is one that has a story behind the story. For example, a news story that reports the details of delayed neighborhood trash pickup is clear and straightforward. But the job of a great journalist (according to my friend) is to discover the story behind the story, which might be the corruption at city hall that is causing the delays in trash pick up. 

Once the article gets below the obvious story, it gets more interesting, complex, and layered. A news story about an impending storm predicted to hit the region in the next few days is a crystal clear topic. But the more compelling story behind the story is the global environmental issues causing increased storm activity. 

Applying this to a college application essay means, while a good topic is the first critical component of a good essay, the second most important component (and the one that will make your story go from good to great!) is the deeper meaning of the topic—which is the story behind the story. 

How to Identify the Compelling Element Behind Your Story

When helping students identify the story behind the story, I often say something like, “I understand that your topic is X, but what is this really about?” Some students get a little frustrated when I ask such an abstract question. To help, I love showing examples from past student essays.

Example #1

Story: A student was told to be less aggressive during the final round of a championship debate because “girls are supposed to be more polite.” 

The story behind the story: The student realized that she had been told to behave more “lady-like” her whole life, yet this type of stereotyping never allowed her to be the strong, confident, outspoken woman she truly is. 

Example #2

Story: A student chose to eat a vegan diet for personal and political reasons. One day, she was offered a piece of non-vegan candy by her mother who thought it would be a kind gesture because this brand of candy used to be the student’s favorite treat. The mother said, “I know this is not vegan, but I will not tell anyone; it will be our secret.”

The story behind the story: The student realized for the first time that she had no desire to “cheat” with her vegan diet because she made a steadfast commitment to a set of principles even when no one else knew. This helped her to recognize that she had the capacity to take a stand, not for public display but because she truly believed in her own personal, internal values. 

Example #3

Story: A student was repeatedly rejected for internships at numerous veterinary offices. After seemingly endless rejections, finally, one internship offer came through. 

The story behind the story: The student discovered a fundamental feature of his personality—a persistence to pursue his interests even when it seemed that he may never achieve his goal. He also realized that this is a character trait he noticed in other parts of his life. 

Example #4

Story: A student was intimidated into silence when harsh social media posts (many from her closest friends) criticized political views shared by the student. Instead of speaking to her friends about these posts and engaging in a political debate, she thought it was better to politely ignore them and not create conflict with her friends, even though it felt uncomfortable staying quiet.

The story behind the story: After mustering the courage to speak up and trust her friendships, the student felt empowered. She came to the realization that staying silent is only a temporary solution to any problem. Being true to one’s core beliefs and having the courage to speak your mind is harder but, in the long run, a better way to be in the world. 

These are just a few examples I share with students to show them the story behind the story. Notice that the initial story is simple. But the essay is not truly complete until you understand the deeper personal significance behind the story.

One note: It is important to remember that the personal reflection included in the story behind the story should not be an afterthought. Do not tell one long story with a sentence or two at the end that reveals the deeper meaning. Tell the initial story relatively quickly, then move on to reveal your story behind the story. 

As I noted at the outset of this post, I really enjoy helping students prepare their college application essays. If you would like to learn more about how to make your personal statement a success, feel free to explore my other blog posts on that subject. And if you are looking for an experienced Independent Educational Consultant who can provide customized personal support during your college application journey, please contact me.