This past summer on the campus of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I worked with College Summit peer leaders, high school seniors, to craft their personal essays for college applications. They joined 70 new peers from around the country who each only knew the other three people from their high school.
They had never met me, and yet we were going to be required to spend 15 hours together over four days. Over the course of the week, the students met the other attendees, worked with college coaches, attended peer sessions, and learned to live in a dorm room with someone they had never met.
When asked what was unique about themselves when we began the writing process, each struggled to identify anything. Since the four in my group knew each other, I asked them to share what they thought was unique about the others. Suddenly, we had a starting point.
They wrote about the topics suggested by their peers that they agreed were unique to them. One student who played football struggled after realizing that many college applicants have also played football. What made his experience unique? He told the story of when one team member had to run 50 laps around the field in the dark. He stood up and said, “I’m running with him because he’s my teammate.” The whole team followed when it would have been easier to go home. The coach stood and watched his players become a team. That was his defining moment.
How do you take this and use it for supplemental writings/requirements?
You extract from an experience a nugget on which to focus. Focus on a specific place and time. You could put us in the moments of running those laps in the dark, how you wanted to quit, how you had a test the next day, how you were exhausted from the workout you had just completed before the run, or how you encouraged others who wanted to give up. Importantly, share what you did, and what that says about your character.
Try working with several trusted friends, parents, or mentors to identify defining moments. Scratch ideas down as they come to you because inspiration strikes at unusual times. Do not let needing to write your supplemental college admission essay cause you to not complete an application. Tell your story out loud. You can edit later.
When I was in graduate school, I needed to write code to complete research assignments. I wrote the end first because I knew where I had to land. Then, I wrote the beginning because I knew where I was starting. I worked my way from each end until they met in the middle. You do not have to write from beginning to end. Start with what you already know and work your way inward.
Some of my most creative time is when I am in the gym. If I am grappling with a challenge, invariably I have the answer when I return from the gym. It always amazes me how simple the answer is and how it was there all along. I just could not see it because I needed to be quiet and listen to my own mind. If you’re stuck, try a refresh, a walk outside, meditation, try ideating on a different topic with Storyscape then return to your essay renewed.
Think of supplement writing as taking a piece of your masterpiece that you completed for your personal essay and enlarging it – giving it more vivid details. Let the reader see, know, and experience you through your colorful, detailed, and captivating story.
Nancy Reid is a volunteer College Writing Coach with College Summit and works as a Global Project Coordinator for Deloitte Tax LLP. She lives in Washington, DC where she shares her home with her husband and dogs.