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How to Improve a Personal Statement in 20 Minutes! (HECA)

Adapted from Lesson 3 from College Essay Guy's "How to Write the Personal Statement" course. For more: www.collegeessayguy.com

Ethan Sawyer

on 6 July 2017

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Transcript of How to Improve a Personal Statement in 20 Minutes! (HECA)

Dropping Keys

The small man
Builds cages for everyone

While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long

For the

- Hafiz
Status Quo
Inciting Incident/Status Quo Change
Raising of the stakes
Moment of Truth
Outcome/New Status Quo
Narrative Structure
Montage Structure
Status Quo
Inciting Incident/Status Quo Change
Raising of the stakes
Moment of Truth
Outcome/New Status Quo
Status Quo
Inciting Incident/Status Quo Change
Raising of the stakes
Moment of Truth
Outcome/New Status Quo
The Objects Exercise
BS: Northwestern, Performance Studies
MFA: UC Irvine, Acting
College Counseling Certificate: UC Irvine
Counseling Certificate: Interchange Counseling Institute
10 years: College Application Consultant, Curriculum Writer, SAT Instructor, Outreach Coordinator
Assoc. Counselor at Los Angeles Leadership Academy Charter
MBTI Certified (ENFJ wannabe, but probably really INFP)
The College Essay Guy
Ethan Sawyer
Television and Screenwriter
ABC, Disney, Grey's Anatomy
BS: Journalism, Northwestern (Medill)
MFA: Screenwriting, USC
a.ka. The Writer
Ryan Maldonado
Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
UC 1 Prompt
Example of Type A essay
- See handout
"On Debate"
Outside Story
Inside Story
OUTSIDE STORY: The universe is being taken over by the forces of evil.

INSIDE STORY: A young man must learn to believe in himself.
Q & A
Toy Story
The Values Exercise
Outside Story =Want
Inside Story = Need

HW (for Students):
Within 48 hrs: Select a writing partner or mentor and email him/her your Agreement. (Note: I'll email you a sample agreement.) Remember that students have the option of partnering with one another during this process, if they so choose.
Decide with which of the four types you most identify, select a possible structure, and read the additional example essays and analyses that correspond to that structure.  
Within five days: Email a rough outline and any additional brainstorming notes to your mentor.
HW (for Counselors):
Decide if you'd like to work with a student through this process or partner with another counselor to write your own personal statement.
If working with a student:
Lead him/her through today's lesson and have him/her email you a rough outline by [a deadline that you set].
If working with another counselor:
This week: Select a writing partner and email him/her your Agreement. (Note: I'll email you a sample agreement.)
Decide with which of the four types you most identify, select a possible structure, and read all four example essays and analyses.
In five days: Email a rough outline and any additional brainstorming notes to your partner.
No partner? Post, "I'd like a webinar partner!" on the College Essay Guy Facebook page; I'll connect you.
Informative Essay
Dazzling Essay
A Dazzling Essay
An Informative Essay
In 2011, I planned a benefit concert named “StarStruck.” While our group initially met just once a week, we began meeting several times a week due to the plethora of financial obstacles we had to overcome. I had the Finance Committee, Marketing Committee, and Performance Committee work together to use YouTube stars as a main focus when advertising. Since the money we made from selling pre-sale tickets was all we had, we had to be exact when it came to deciding the quantity of food to order. My club advisor was skeptical at first, but once she saw our advertising and marketing plans, she felt more confident in the success of the event. Fortunately, we didn’t let her down. The event started off with no budget and ended up being a huge success.
The Personal Statement
Guiding Question:
What do we learn about this student?
Other things the reader might wonder:

What are the author's hopes? Dreams? Passions?
...most deeply held values?
In short: What will the author contribute to a college campus?
I believe:
An essay can (and should)
inform AND dazzle.

The question is:
How do we make that happen?
Q: Should your personal statement inform or dazzle?
Which do you prefer?
How do we determine whether or not an essay is "great"?

- What are the qualities of a great essay?
I'll share mine in a second. But first I want to hear from you:

If you had to develop a set of essential qualities for a great essay... which qualities would you choose?
Next question: What techniques would you suggest for helping a student bring more of these qualities (i.e. those you've identified) into a personal statement?
The Four Qualities of a Great Essay (in Ethan's opinion)
...and How to Bring More of Each Into an Essay
The Great College Essay Test
1. Core Values (aka Information)
2. Vulnerability
3. "So what" moments
a.k.a. insight
a.k.a. important and interesting connections
4. Craft
Much of my early knowledge of how the world works was formed through countless hours spent playing with Barbie dolls. My sister, Taylor, and I had a plethora of toys, filling our basement's cabinets and often littering our brightly checkered IKEA rug, but Barbie was our favorite. We gave her choppy, unfortunate haircuts, houses constructed out of large wooden dominoes, and a variety of cars--a neon orange truck, a convertible with a bubblegum-pink steering wheel, and a Volkswagen Beetle with a missing back tire.
Above the basement, the kitchen radio spewed out information--the news of the 9/11 attacks on our friends’ parents at the Pentagon, the War in Afghanistan, and the D.C. area snipers’ attacks on our entire community--but Taylor and I had trouble understanding what the information meant.
As my mom drove me to a doctor’s appointment, our local station announced that the snipers had shot someone just miles away. After I “raced” her inside into the waiting room, I soaked in the murmur about guns, a white van, and two very bad men. In the car ride home, I asked her a myriad of questions about terrorism including, “Do bullets go through glass?” Her responses left me still craving answers, so I took matters into my own hands. At five years old, I decided to enlist Barbie in the army.
While I fought against my penetrating fear of the world outside our haven of toys, Barbie herself fought against the very terrorism I was afraid of. In what we called our “Barbie Afghanistan,” Taylor and I worked through our confusion by making Barbie fight the battles, still wearing her high heels and ball gowns.
I no longer play with Barbie, but she has fought another war in my adolescence. I'm a passionate feminist, and my opinions about Barbie have caused an internal tug-of-war on my beliefs. As I sit in my basement now, surrounded by books and my laptop, I have just as many questions as I did at five years old.
I’ve desperately attempted to consolidate my opposing opinions of Barbie into a single belief, but I've accepted that they're separate. In one, she has perpetuated physical ideals unrepresentative of how real female bodies are built. Striving to look like Barbie is not only striving for the impossible--the effort is detrimental to women's psychological and physical health, including my own. In the other, Barbie has inspired me in her breaking of the plastic ceiling. She has dabbled in close to 150 careers, including some I'd love to have: a UNICEF Ambassador, teacher, and business executive. And although it’s not officially listed on her résumé, Barbie served honorably in the War in Afghanistan.
Barbie has proven to be an 11.5-inch-tall embodiment of both what frustrates and excites me. From terrorism to feminism and beyond, I am vexed by the complexities of the world but eager to piece things together. Although I’m frustrated by what I can’t understand, I’ve realized that confusion is okay.

With Barbie as my weapon, I’ve continued to fight in the many “wars” in my life. I’ve found great value in the questions I ask and in my attempts to reconcile our world’s inevitable contradictions. Things can be innocent yet mature, they can be detrimental yet empowering, and they can even wear high heels and a ball gown while fighting in a war.
Barbie vs. Terrorism and the Patriarchy
How to Bring More Values, Vulnerability, and Insight into Your Essay (or How to Improve Your Essay If You Feel It's "Just Okay")
Analysis/The Test
1. Core Values

- Can you name at least 4-5 of the author's core values?
- Do you detect a variety of values, or do the values repeat?
2. Vulnerability

- Does the essay sound mostly analytical, or like it's coming from a deeper, more vulnerable place?
- After reading the essay, do you know more about the author AND feel closer to him or her?
3. "So what" moments
(aka Important and Interesting connections)

- Can you identify at least 3-5 "so what" moments (of insight) in the essay?

- Are these moments predictable, or are they truly illuminating?
4. Craft

- Do the ideas in the essay connect in a way that is logical, but not too obvious (read: boring)?

- Can you tell that the essay represents a series of carefully considered choices and that the author spent a lot of time revising the essay over several drafts?

- Is it interesting and succinct throughout?
Core Value
More core values
"So what"
Core values
"So what" moment
Core values
"So what" moment
Core values
"So what" moment
Analyzing your essays
How to Bring More Values (and Information!) into Your Essay
Ask these three questions:

1. Which values are coming through clearly?
Highlight them.
2. Which values are kind of coming through?
Mark these too. Different color.
3. Which values aren't there yet, but could be?
1. Great job! But where can I trim?
2. How can these values be clearer?
3. Which values are missing?
How could I demonstrate these?
Four Quick Tips
1. Delete repetitive values (hard work + perseverance)
2. CUT sections where no clear values are coming through
3. REWRITE sections where values are unclear
4. ADD values you'd like to include
How to Be Vulnerable in Your Essay
FAQ: Wait, MUST I be vulnerable in my essay?

A: No, but...
The best essays I've ever read have a vulnerable quality
Also: there are many ways to be "vulnerable"
Three Ways to Be Vulnerable in Your Essay:

#1. Reveal Something You Worry People Might Judge You For
Examples: (all in the book)
"With Debate" essay
"I gave up Self Defense after embarrassing myself in class. After-school band, library volunteering, and book clubs ended similarly. Continued effort yielded nothing."
"I Shot My Brother" essay
"Here's a secret no one in my family knows: I shot my brother when I was six."
"Easter" essay
"It was Easter and we should’ve been celebrating with our family, but my father had locked us in the house. If he wasn’t going out, neither were my mother and I."
Value #1: Vulnerability magnetizes
- Google "Brené Brown TED talk power of vulnerability"

Value #2: Vulnerability is where the magic happens.
#2. Discuss a Challenge or Contradiction That Is Unresolved
or Unresolvable
Example: "Barbie vs. Terrorism and the Patriarchy" essay
How can you discover your own unresolved/unresolvable conflicts?
1. Look at your Top 5 Values (see Values Exercise)
2. Ask: Which values tend to conflict with one another? (or)
What opposing pulls do I sometimes feel?
Examples: desire for... consistency vs. travel (or) self-expression vs. listening
3. Ask: What does this say about me? How do I feel about this?
#3. Describe Your Passion and Do Not Apologize for It

Example: “Endodontics” essay (in PDF)
"I’m the math geek who marvels at the fundamental theorems of Calculus, or who sees beauty in A = (s(s − a)(s − b)(s − c))^(1 / 2)."

Example: "If Ink Were Ants" (in book)
"Awe overwhelmed my middle-school mind. My hand, a bottle cap, everything, was composed of not only atoms, but of smaller quarks, which were not static points, but oscillating strings. Everything in my life might be controlled by infinitesimal, interconnected loops... the universe, a mind-bogglingly large space, might be only one of an infinite number of universes. After studying cosmology at an extra-curricular astro-camp, I was certain: I wanted to be a theoretical physicist."
How to Bring More "So What" Moments Into Your Essay (or)
How to Make Sure Your Insights Are Actually Insightful
Analogy of the Painter, the Art Critic, and the Curator
How can you make sure your insight moments are insightful?

1. Separate a few "show" moments from their "tell" moments

Example "show" moment:
"Many nights you’ll find me in the garage replacing standard chrome trim with an elegant piano black finish or changing the threads on the stitching of the seats to add a personal touch..."

Example “tell” moment:
"...as I believe a few small changes can transform a generic product into a personalized work of art."
2. Read your "show" moment(s) aloud and see if your listener can guess the "tell" (insight).
(If s/he can't guess, it might be a good one.)

Images, images, images.
Complex thoughts are expressed in a succinct way.
Selective use of big words.
There's a space at the end. An ellipsis.
If it makes me cry.
How do you make the reader cry?

1. Tap into something so deep and important to you that just thinking about it makes you cry.Then:
2. Write about it in a way that never, ever, makes the reader feel like you’re trying to make him or her cry.
3. Finally, make sure to leave something unaccounted for. (The best essays don’t explain everything.)
Examples of essays that have made me cry:
“Bowling,” “Dying Bird,” “I Shot My Brother,” “Grandma’s Kimchi,” and “Breaking Up with Mom”

How do you test this?
Keep revising it until your essay makes five different people cry.
But remember: Do it without trying to do it.

#1: For Counselors AND students
Counselors: Gain all the tools
Students: Finish main statement in one week!
#2: Daily 1-hr lessons with step-by-step HW
#3: DAILY Q&A with me (address your essay issues)
#4: Recordings for those who can't make it live.
#6: Limited number of pay-what-you-can spots available.
To register: collegeessayguy.com/workshops
If you're interested in a pay-what-you-can spot, email:

(Do this now.)
Let's analyze
some essays!
For pay-what-you-can, email assistant@collegeessayguy.com (now)
Did you know?
Coming up: Writing Day!
FYI: No live session tomorrow, but there is an optional session in your CEG library that will teach you how to guide a session.

Write a new draft. Simple.
Meet with your partner, especially if you either haven't had a chance to meet yet, or have only met once.
My story begins at about the age of two, when I first learned what a maze was. For most people, solving mazes is a childish phase, but I enjoyed artistically designing them. At around the age of eight, I invented a way for mazes to carry binary-encoded messages, with left turns and right turns representing 0s and 1s.

Here’s what I wrote when I was 9:
...in about 20 minutes
Upcoming Opportunities to Partner/Connect

July: Partnering w/Counselors for One-Week Boot Camp (online course)
July: How to Write Amazing Supplemental Essays (online course)
Sept: How to Write the UC Personal Insight Questions

For more, email: info@collegeessayguy.com
Ethan Sawyer
BS: Northwestern, Performance Studies
MFA: UC Irvine, Acting
Counseling Certificates: UC Irvine, Interchange Counseling Institute
10 years: College Application Consultant, Teacher,
Curriculum Writer
Certified in Myers-Briggs & Hypnotherapy
College Essay Guy
Author of College Essay Essentials: #1 Bestselling book on essays
Find me here:
If you've never heard of me...
Want to volunteer?
Search "College Essay Forum for Counselors"
Private Counselor FB Group
Resources and hand-outs will be emailed; just type in your email on the iPad and I'll send you:

Link to this presentation
Handout PDF for this presentation (the one-pager)
Invitation to the College Essay Forum for Counselors private FB group
First, a well-crafted essay.
The College Essay Guy Podcast
During my childhood, while I helped my grandfather construct tables for our garage, had year-round Easter egg hunts with my cousins, and pretended to cook with plastic food for my parents, my grandmother—her face pained yet hopeful—lay in bed. I never understood the severity of her illness, so her seemingly abrupt passing confounded me; I couldn’t fathom how a physical condition could disrupt and eventually steal my grandma’s life. Two years after her death, I was able to really grasp that she had lost a long-fought battle to liver cancer.
After my grandmother’s death, I grew closer to my extended family. I focused and continue to focus, sometimes myopically, on school alone. It’s a luxury but I have realized that it also means it makes me selfish at times. My relationship with my them is like a foundation that provides me the confidence and the desire to share my bliss with those in need both physically and emotionally.
When my mom suggested volunteering at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, I casually agreed to the opportunity for community service hours. I began as a patient transporter: I greeted patients politely and carefully pushed them in wheelchairs to be discharged or to receive x-rays or CT scans. Initially, I was disappointed by the lack of action and drama at the hospital, and it affected my ability to connect with patients.
Eventually, I switched to an assistant caretaker at the Bowyer Treatment Center, and I discovered that excitement and vigor can make all the difference. Interacting with cancer patients reminded me of my grandmother and triggered a compassion and desire to help them in any way possible. Ivana, a victim of breast cancer, and I discussed her two beloved sons and my dream colleges while David, a coffee farmer who flies to UCLA from his home in Hawaii each week to treat his lung cancer, and I talked about Korean food and charity work. Before I left to check on other patients, they thanked me for simply being their friend during their usually lonely hours-long treatments, and I silently thanked them for the opportunity to devote my time to thinking about them rather than myself.
Hospital visits can seem like a pause from life and illnesses like complete interruptions; sometimes, all patients need is a friend to not only understand their situation, but also overcome the struggle. I want to be an oncologist so that I can research to discover improved treatments or even cures for cancer, and be there every step of the way—from diagnosis to treatment to discharge—as a physical healer and emotional refuge. I can provide Ivana more time with her children. I can help David muster more energy to work on his coffee farm. I couldn’t save my grandma’s life, but I can honor her memory through my work. Final note
They covered the precious mahogany coffin with a brown amalgam of rocks, decomposed organisms, and weeds. It was my turn to take the shovel, but I felt too ashamed to dutifully send her off when I had not properly said goodbye. I refused to throw dirt on her. I refused to let go of my grandmother, to accept a death I had not seen coming, to believe that an illness could not only interrupt, but steal a beloved life.
When my parents finally revealed to me that my grandmother had been battling liver cancer, I was twelve and I was angry--mostly with myself. They had wanted to protect me--only six years old at the time--from the complex and morose concept of death. However, when the end inevitably arrived, I wasn’t trying to comprehend what dying was; I was trying to understand how I had been able to abandon my sick grandmother in favor of playing with friends and watching TV. Hurt that my parents had deceived me and resentful of my own oblivion, I committed myself to preventing such blindness from resurfacing.
I became desperately devoted to my education because I saw knowledge as the key to freeing myself from the chains of ignorance. While learning about cancer in school I promised myself that I would memorize every fact and absorb every detail in textbooks and online medical journals. And as I began to consider my future, I realized that what I learned in school would allow me to silence that which had silenced my grandmother. However, I was focused not with learning itself, but with good grades and high test scores. I started to believe that academic perfection would be the only way to redeem myself in her eyes--to make up for what I had not done as a granddaughter.
However, a simple walk on a hiking trail behind my house made me open my own eyes to the truth. Over the years, everything--even honoring my grandmother--had become second to school and grades. As my shoes humbly tapped against the Earth, the towering trees blackened by the forest fire a few years ago, the faintly colorful pebbles embedded in the sidewalk, and the wispy white clouds hanging in the sky reminded me of my small though nonetheless significant part in a larger whole that is humankind and this Earth. Before I could resolve my guilt, I had to broaden my perspective of the world as well as my responsibilities to my fellow humans.
Volunteering at a cancer treatment center has helped me discover my path. When I see patients trapped in not only the hospital but also a moment in time by their diseases, I talk to them. For six hours a day, three times a week, Ivana is surrounded by IV stands, empty walls, and busy nurses that quietly yet constantly remind her of her breast cancer. Her face is pale and tired, yet kind--not unlike my grandmother’s. I need only to smile and say hello to see her brighten up as life returns to her face. Upon our first meeting, she opened up about her two sons, her hometown, and her knitting group--no mention of her disease. Without even standing up, the three of us—Ivana, me, and my grandmother--had taken a walk together.
Cancer, as powerful and invincible as it may seem, is a mere fraction of a person’s life. It’s easy to forget when one’s mind and body are so weak and vulnerable. I want to be there as an oncologist to remind them to take a walk once in a while, to remember that there’s so much more to life than a disease. While I physically treat their cancer, I want to lend patients emotional support and mental strength to escape the interruption and continue living. Through my work, I can accept the shovel without burying my grandmother’s memory.
Have an idea for a guest? Let me know!
If you really knew me...
Full transcript