In September 2011, I found myself less than a month away from the deadline for applying to the school I had been dreaming of attending since kindergarten, and though I had seemingly had nearly 12 years to think about it, I not only had no application essay written, but I did not even have a whisper of an idea. Knowing that sudden strokes of genius are the easiest ways of finding ideas (if not the most reliable), I decided to keep calm and trust that inspiration would hit me eventually. And when it came (as it certainly will for you too!), it came with a half measure of relief and four measures of disappointment. Thinking myself to be the next Mark Zuckerberg (as everyone did in the 18 months after The Social Network was robbed of the Academy Award for Best Picture), I wrote about my passion for technological change in the world and my desire to be part of the movement toward rapid modernization and scientific discovery. It was all well and good, and on the surface I felt that most of the words were true, yet somehow I was not entirely convinced by my own writing.
It wasn’t that I didn’t actually want to go into computer science, or any science for that matter—I would not figure that out for another two months—nor was it that my career aspirations were not aligned firmly with those mentioned in exaggerated pathos in the essay. It was simply that the words did not capture who I was. Yes, I wanted to major (“concentrate,” as it were) in that field of study, but what was ostensibly my personal statement said less about myself than it needed to. It did not dig into my psyche, my being, even my thought process. It talked about who I was as a student and as a pre-professional (read: who I wanted to be as a student and as a pre-professional), but it said nothing about who I was as a person.
I then sat down with a fresh paper, pencil, and mindset, and wrote about what I loved: geocaching, a recreational activity that requires a GPS and a spirit of adventure. I wrote about how my childhood addiction to reading led me to seek treasure hunts like the ones in my books, and how this led me to geocaching. I lamented about how high school had forced me to vastly reduce my time spent geocaching but also how it had opened my eyes to an entire new treasure hunt: a treasure hunt for knowledge. It was the easiest paper I have ever written, because the words were those that I felt truly captured who I was.
Cheesy? Absolutely. Powerful? Hardly. Personal? Certainly. A last-minute substitution of my new essay as my personal statement (while retaining my initial attempt as Harvard’s supplemental essay more as a consolation prize than anything) got me into Harvard but also gave me the confidence that I did not have before as a writer, the confidence to write about something close to me without regard for what it might sound like. Even if I thought that admissions officers wanted to hear about how I was going to change the world, I knew that any paper of that nature would not be personal; my experiences with geocaching, however, captured not only the self that I wanted to convey to Harvard, but the self that I felt was actually within me. So take a deep breath, relax, think honestly (and subjectively!) about who you are, and write about it.
Connor is a tutor for HSA Tutoring