Take (Writing) Risks Before It's Too Late
April 1, 2017
By Tori Link, Writing Tutor
Now that it's the spring semester of my senior year, the time has finally come for me to give advice to younger students and share the pieces of venerated wisdom I've gleaned from my four years in the trenches of undergrad studies. I've heard all the go-to stuff, about making friends and studying hard. Of all the corny, deep truths I've learned about myself at Xavier, I think the most significant is that I now recognize the importance of taking risks. College is a time to take chances and try new things, and there's no better place to start taking risks than in your writing.
My most recent experience with risky writing choices was while writing my personal statement for graduate applications, as I attempted to pin down some kind of structured plan for my post-Xavier life. If you haven't had to write a personal statement yet, you probably will eventually when applying for professional/graduate schools, jobs, and internships. If you have written one, you know how tricky the personal statement can be, because you want it to really show off everything you have to offer. However, you also know how easy the personal statement is to overlook, underestimate, and put off for later; when an admissions committee tells you that they need an application, a resume, a test score, all of the money in your bank account, your left kidney, and your first-born child, the two-page essay about yourself might not seem quite as daunting in comparison. But that all changes once you start writing it.
I felt very prepared to write my personal statement. I learned about the nuances that differentiate personal statements for law school, medical school, and every kind of grad school program in between. I read all the Buzzfeed articles about the "funniest personal statement fails" and every blog post I could find about what admission counselors are looking for and how to make your essay stand out. In theory, I should have known what to expect from my writing process. But when I put pen to paper, I could only write short, disjointed paragraphs, without any sense of meaning or intentionality. My word choice was shoddy and lackluster, and the paper was poorly organized. My conclusion was vague and there was no overall meaning conveyed. I thought I had done everything I was supposed to, but my personal statement was still a hot mess that didn't say anything that I wanted it to.
I came to the conclusion that the reason I struggled at this writing process was because I wasn't prepared to write about myself in this context. I knew what personal experiences I had planned to write about, and how that had affected me, but I didn't know how to put these feelings into conversation with each other. I found it painstakingly difficult to piece together a story that would help create an image of me as a thoughtful and conscientious person. I didn't want to have to talk about myself and share these personal details with a complete stranger. The idea that another human being in an admissions office at some faraway school would use this essay to form their entire opinion of me made me feel afraid and vulnerable. It took me several days of drafting and awkward personal sharing sessions with friends, family members, professors, and other Writing Center tutors before I had a completed draft that said the things that I wanted the world to know about me.
I've come to the realization that the reason my personal statement was difficult to write is because even after four years of college, I still find it difficult to take a risk in my writing. It is challenging to write about our personal experiences because they are indeed personal, and to put them into words is to give those experiences to others. It's made even more difficult when we have to write about this for something as high-stakes as the things we plan for our future, where the details we reveal about ourselves will impact what we are able to do after college. However, I also think it was good for me to have to do this, sharing pieces of myself with others isn't going to get easier after I graduate, and the writing certainly isn't going to stop either.
The best advice that I can give to undergraduates is to always try to take risks while writing. I know that it's important to try to write the paper that will get you the grade that you want; however, because college provides you with so many opportunities to write on topics that you feel passionate about, the reward is so much greater if you write about them in ways that engage your thoughts more deeply than you expected. So go ahead and take the risk: chances are, you'll find yourself using the words that you were searching for all along.