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The Making of A Personal Statement

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The Making of A Personal Statement photo

This past weekend, I ventured down to my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and for 36 hours clumsily made my best attempt at re-living my college days. In the 10 years since I first stepped onto campus, so much has changed, yet so much remains the same. While I might not be able to party as hard as used to, getting to enjoy Champaign in the fall was just as much a treat as ever.

The weekend was an ideal mix of visiting with old friends and revisiting our treasured old haunts. You know what I mean. That college experience. Making my way back brought to mind an interesting thought: No matter how uncertain I was when I was applying to schools, I am so glad to have made my way there. I wasn't sure about my choice from the start, but my heart is filled with unforgettable memories and a warm nostalgia that will last for many years to come.

A few weeks ago I assisted a group of high school students in a college essay-writing workshop. I poured over the tips and tricks to get in the mode of cobbling together this most daunting of missives. When I arrived at the tutoring center, I was greeted by students with a range of strengths and experiences. I let my inner English professor take over as we chatted about which schools they wanted to attend and any colleges they visited while I prepped my pen (black, not red) to comb through their essay draft.

I tried my best to impart any wisdom I had. My own pass at the college essay process was half-hearted at best. I knew I loved to write. I knew my grades were passable. I participated in extra-curricular activities. My ACT was relatively up to snuff. My stumbling block? I didn't know how to write about myself.

I also didn't want to write about myself. I was terrified. I've been enamored of writing, stories and language since I can remember. Shaking in my proverbial 17-year-old boots, I had not a clue where to begin.

How do you distinguish yourself in a meaningful way, to share a unique perspective or experience? Those weren't the tenets of the English classes I'd absorbed. Answer the question. Follow the rules. Keep your head down. Work hard. Not, "What value can you add? What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?" Confidence was difficult to come by when I stared at the blank page.

It wasn't until I feverishly penned my essay, anxiously awaited my acceptance, went to college, lived a little more life in Chicago and abroad that I became more patient with myself. That patience has also encouraged me to continually deepen my effort to help others go through what I've already tackled.

Ten years later, I don't have the answers. But now, after two and half decades of voracious reading, writing and editing, my eye is trained and ready to peel through layers of a given document to get at the heart of what it's trying to say. My favorite part of working with these high school seniors is unearthing the core of what makes their own journey unique. How their personal experiences, described with their own narrative flair, fit into the framework of a personal mission statement is gratifying to reshape and define as a team. No one needs to write alone. But as I've learned the hard way, the most difficult and most crucial step is asking for help.

I admire the dedication it took these students to wake up early on a Saturday morning to work on this difficult piece of writing with a tutor they've never met. That takes guts, especially with a weekday schedule packed with hours of homework and activities.

I left these sessions with a few lessons bubbling to the surface, that hopefully we all learned together. When it comes to personal essay writing, don't be afraid to think of yourself in the most positive light possible. The longer you wade into the academic waters (and beyond), knowing the power you hold as your own advocate will be your guide. Don't censor yourself (within reason). Get someone else to read your writing.

For everyone, from the most ambitious Harvard-bound student to the most tepid and apprehensive, I wish them all the luck in the world in landing in a place -- and it definitely does not need to be four-year university -- where you feel contented, at home and ready to grow into the person you wish to become.

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