In a conversation with a friend, Tolu Akinyemi, about two months ago, we discussed how an expert could be lost in the world of what seems so obvious to them that they don’t understand how everyone else sees it. As an editor, sometimes while reading essays by other individuals, I scream to myself – can’t you see this paragraph doesn’t flow well or that you are misusing the punctuation!
Writing personal statements and essays for scholarships can be very tasking and truthfully annoying sometimes. From not understanding what the application is asking to not knowing what to write about yourself. I have been there and done that. This blog post aims to amplify the extremely simple things that seem so obvious to me when it comes to personal statements and scholarship essays. The two simple things that get me through my essays are Prompts and Paragraphs. It would seem very easy after reading this blog post but it will surprise you that many individuals don't see essay writing this way and get easily overwhelmed.
Prompts and Paragraphs
Prompts: When applying for opportunities, you’ll very likely come across a section asking you to write a “personal statement” or “statement of purpose” or “personal essay.” Sometimes, these applications provide prompts of the content they’ll like you to include in an essay as well as word limit. Sometimes, they don’t. In a case where you are provided an essay prompt and word limit, you want to do the following:
Obviously, these are two questions:
A more complicated prompt sample: In the context in which you have grown up, formed your aspirations, and accomplished your academic successes - please describe the factors and challenges that have most shaped your personal life and aspirations. How have these factors helped you to grow? (800 Words)
Here is how I will break it down – bolded words are exact words from the prompt.
When you break the prompt into smaller bits, they are less challenging. Before we go to the next step of answering the questions with the goal of the word-limit provided, here is a tricky thing you should keep in mind – The invincible questions. While the breakdown system above may help you see what’s so obvious, you should always ask yourself (but not overthink it) – what are the questions they didn’t add to the prompt, but they are asking. If you have a robust prompt like the second example above, you may not need to find the invisible questions. However, you may need to, if you have a less robust prompt like the first one, “What do you admire most about your community? What would you improve?”
Imagine taking a family member for surgery. The doctor comes out to the waiting room post-surgery to talk to the family members – one of the first questions the family members usually ask is, “How is X doing?” The literal world where we respond to that question with “fine” or “not bad” doesn’t apply to this situation. What we are inaudibly asking the doctor is:
This same logic also can happen with essay prompts. Back to our simple prompt sample: “What do you admire most about your community? What would you improve?” Our original break down was:
Here is how we can make the breakdown more robust, finding the invincible questions and leading you to write more in your essay. Keep in mind not to repeat a question or synonymize it – the point of the invincible question is to amplify what has already been stated not repeat.
Now that you have successfully broken down the prompt into questions, the next thing is answering them. The easy way out is to simply divide the number of questions you have by the word limit and aim to write a paragraph with an average of those words responding to each question. For example, we are required to write 500 words for this prompt “What do you admire most about your community? What would you improve?” and we broke it down into 5 questions, making 100 words answering each question.
Paragraphs: When it comes to paragraphing essays, sometimes people spend more time discussing one idea than the other, then go beyond the word limit. Ensure that you are placing the right priorities in your responses and establishing clear points with each paragraph. With the question break down, you can easily stick to answering one question per paragraph.
When answering the questions, I recommend starting your response with a sentence that precisely summarizes your thoughts. So, for example:
Question 1: What do you admire most about your community?
The first sentence response: What I admire most about my community in the Bronx is the diversity in the demographics of people living there.
Of course, that response above is only 20 words out of the 100 words that I am expecting you to write on an average for that paragraph or to answer that question. With the remaining 80 words, now think of specific examples or concise explanation of how you have seen diversity in your community's demographic.
Additional response: Growing up in the Bronx and attending Bronx Community College, I was privileged to meet people with different backgrounds, ethnicities, nationalities, and cultural affiliations. From exchanging stories and networking, we soon realized how we are more alike than different. I can recall during an English 101 class work when my Latino friend mentioned her mother’s sharp-shooting Chancleta (flip-flop) that disciplined her, and I made the comparison to my mother’s Pankere (cane) that was always around the corner.
Just like that, we have 77 words from the additional response and roughly 100 words in total to complete the first paragraph. Let’s dive into the second question from our prompt breakdown to complete the second paragraph, following the pattern I analyzed above.
Question 2: Why do you admire those things about your community?
The first sentence response: I admire the diversity of the people in my community in the Bronx because I know that diversity and inclusion is not found in every community.
Additional response: When I transferred to New York University, I soon realized the privilege I left behind in the Bronx. The classroom wasn’t as diverse, and there were less Latino, Middle Eastern, and African/ African American students in the classroom than I anticipated. There were also difficulties in the inclusivity as students sometimes sat in groups of their racial or ethnic affiliations. That made it more challenging to start conversations that would breed common grounds like in the Bronx.
Do you see how and where this is going?
You can learn about other essay writing tips from tons of websites. They’ll most likely provide generic suggestions telling you to edit, tell a story, answer the prompt, etc. Yes, you should follow those generic suggestions. However, if I could go back to the early years of my essay writing to change anything – this is how I wish I was taught. Having an excellent prompt breakdown and paraphing can ease so much burden when challenged with essay writing for scholarships or personal statements.
Another day, I’ll give you tips on answering essays or personal statement that don’t provide prompts. If you still struggle and need just a little help, please check out my services - www.shoolaoyin.com/services and I'll be happy to support.