If you could have only one resource for writing pretty much any college admissions essay, you should grab Ethan Sawyer’s College Essay Essentials.
The beauty of Sawyer’s approach is its simplicity. Students answer two questions with yes/no responses. Based on the combination of yeses and noes, you write in one of four structures. He gives students the tools to brainstorm, plan, draft, and revise deep and meaningful personal statements. And for those who are a little less interested in deep and meaningful and just want to get the thing done, Sawyer also has a section titled “How to Write Your Essay in Just One Night (Break Only in Case of Emergency).”
Although I don’t personally know Sawyer, I have annotated his entire book, read most of the articles on his College Essay Guy website, watched his YouTube videos, and guided students in person through his free Personal Statement Workshop.
This method works.
In College Essay Essentials, Sawyer includes a toolbox of exceptionally helpful prewriting exercises to guide students as they explore both the small details (Essence Objects Exercise) and the big picture (Values Exercise) of their lives. For students looking for intellectual or emotional depth in their essays, the section titled “How Do I Make My Essay, Like, Deep?” walks students through the Feelings and Needs Exercise. In my experience working with high school students as they develop their personal statements, I’ve seen the Feelings and Needs Exercise produce some spectacular essays.
Beyond brainstorming, Sawyer’s approach also provides specific structures for personal statements that divide into two broad categories—narrative and montage. Narrative essays focus on one story and let the events unfold to reveal something about the writer. Montage essays center on one theme, allowing the writer to pull several examples to illustrate it.
The narrative and montage structures are like gutter guards in bowling. They keep you in your lane. The structural charts in College Essay Essentials are just the right amount of support to send those beginning the process in the right direction. For those who are outstanding writers and already have clarity about what they want to say as well as how they want to say it, Sawyer gives room to run with it.
“That’s nice,” you say, “but does he cover how to write each of the Common App prompts?” Actually, no. He doesn’t. He doesn’t need to. This method of writing the personal statement can generate essays that fit every prompt the Common App folks offer. It really does. Once you write your essay, the one that most authentically gives a picture of who you are, then you can choose one of the Common App prompts. You might have to tweak your essay a little, but you won’t have to start the whole process again.
“Will College Essay Essentials help me write college-specific essays?” you ask. Why, yes. Yes, it will. The essay-writing techniques Sawyer teaches are applicable to virtually every personal statement essay I’ve encountered, whether it’s for college admissions, scholarships, graduate programs, or professional schools. The fundamentals are the same.
If you want to check out school-specific or system-specific advice… actually, if you want to take a deeper dive into college essays and personal statements in general… jump over to the College Essay Guy blog, and get ready for a deep dive into information that will guide you to your best essay for wherever you hope to land.
You’re going to find a plethora (COLLEGE ESSAY WORD) of outstanding guidance on writing personal statements on the College Essay Guy website and YouTube channel but still buy the book. It’s a handbook that will take you well beyond undergrad admissions.
On the website, you will find an online course on writing personal statements that is literally the best available. It costs a bit of money. However, Sawyer has a strict pay-what-you-can policy, and he is sincere about that.
Before your application deadlines get a whole lot closer, buy the book, scour the website and YouTube, dig into the workshops that are free, enroll in the ones behind the paywall, and if you need feedback on your draft, email me. Pricing and contact information is here.