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

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

Ethan Sawyer

on 31 May 2018

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

Remember: you are unique.
Just like everyone else.
- Tom Robbins
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

Ethan Sawyer, College Essay Guy
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
1. 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
2. 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.)

1. Express complex thoughts in a succinct way.
2. Use big words selectively.
3. Make the reader cry.
Example of a complex thought succinctly expressed:

"A tiny bird of a woman with clipped wings."
- "Breaking Up With Mom" essay
Example of big words used selectively:

“My diffidence was frustrating” and “as calls for help grew, the more defunct I became.”
- “With Debate” essay
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.
#5 (but actually #5-17):

How do I figure out what to write about?
How do I structure my essay?
Is there a step-by-step process for writing it?
Are any topics off-limits?
How much sharing is too much?
How do I revise my essay?
How do I make it not-boring?
What are some different ways I can start my story?
How do I show the reader I’m really smart?
How do I brag in a way that doesn’t sound like I’m bragging?
How do I make my essay, like, deep?
What are the four qualities of an amazing essay?
How do I end my essay?
How do I know whether my essay is good or not?
Should I share my essay? With how many people? When?
#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. Eventually my creations jumped from their two dimensional confinement, requiring the solver to dive through holes to the other side, or fold part of the paper over, then right back again. 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. This evolved into a base-3 maze on the surface of a tetrahedron, with crossing an edge representing a 2. For me, a blank piece of paper represented the freedom to explore new dimensions, pushing the boundaries of traditional maze making.

I found a similar freedom in mathematics.

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

Oct. 14-16: LIVE Online Personal Statement Course for Counselors and Students
Nov. 11-13: LIVE Online UC Application Course for Counselors and Students
Spring 2017: LIVE 3-Day In-Person Counselor Retreat w/College Essay Guy (NorCal)

- Enter name & email on iPad for more info.
Ethan Sawyer
BS: Northwestern, Performance Studies
MFA: UC Irvine, Acting
Counseling Certificate: Interchange Counseling Institute
10 years: College Application Consultant, Teacher
Curriculum Writer
MBTI Certified
College Essay Guy
Find me here:
Or email: info@collegessayguy.com
How to Improve a Personal Statement in 20 Minutes
Full transcript