By zeroing in on one particular aspect of what is, invariably, a long story, you may be better able to extract meaning from the story. So instead of talking generally about playing percussion in the orchestra, hone in on a huge cymbal crash marking the climax of the piece. Or instead of trying to condense that two-week backpacking trip into a couple of paragraphs, tell your reader about waking up in a cold tent with a skiff of snow on it. The specificity of the story not only helps focus the reader’s attention, but also opens the door to deeper reflection on what the story means to you.
1. Anecdote and specificity. As you saw in the prompts above, we’re big advocates of beginning with a particular story or anecdote. This is NOT the only way to start an essay, but it’s a classic one. Journalists call this a “lede”—it’s a hook that brings the reader into a wider topic. Your essay will always go beyond the anecdote, but an anecdote offers a reader an easy, smooth way into your personal statement.
All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.
“Having worked in children’s education for years, I’m enthralled by child psychology. From shaping my Kumon students’ work ethic through positive reinforcement to employing associative learning to help my church students anchor their understanding of scripture, I have become experienced in using my knowledge of psychological concepts to help children manifest their cognitive and social abilities. Based on my experience working and bonding with youth, I want to be able to integrate psychological concepts into my future work as a pediatrician to develop supportive and insightful relationships with my patients.
I didn’t really understand my community until I was forced to see it from the outside; sort of like when you see a picture of yourself someone else took that you weren’t aware of. It took a 3,000 mile flight for me to gain a different perspective of the world, of my world. When I landed in Maine it was nothing like the place I called home. There was no traffic, there were lots of trees, and absolutely no spanish to be heard anywhere. I missed my people, my home, and my community the most as I saw the ways in which other communities fostered creativity, advocacy, and community involvement.
“I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence.”
Sharing a personal story that’s relevant to the prompt is an excellent way to make your essay stand out from the crowd. You don’t have to pick a strictly academic story for your essay; college admissions boards care about your complete persona, not simply your academic history. However, remember that your story exists to serve your prompt; avoid telling a story for its own sake. Leave out elements that aren’t relevant to the essay, and resist the urge to include every single juicy detail. When searching for stories from your history, choose incidents that allowed you to learn and grown. Don’t be afraid to use a failure in your story; colleges know that students are humans and that failure is a natural part of life.