Okay, you’ve calmed down after your initial essay-writing anxiety, and you still don’t know where to begin. How do you capture your whole life in the meager number of characters allotted?
Whether you’re feeling stuck or feeling overwhelmed by all the ideas bouncing around in your head, a stellar technique to start with is called Clustering, also known as Mind Mapping. Clustering is a visual form of brainstorming that allows you to free associate around a chosen topic. Although it can seem random on the surface, it usually reveals deep connections. It’s perfect for excavating the personal experiences you’ll want to draw on to enliven your essay.
How to Make a Cluster, or Mind Map, for Your Personal Statement
Step 1: 10 seconds. Take a blank sheet of paper, write your name in the middle of it, and draw a circle around it. Alternatively, you could use one of the many electronic mind mapping programs available online, some with free trials. I personally like to do this exercise using a large drawing pad.
Step 2: 5 – 10 minutes. Free associate from your name, writing down words as they come (include feelings, ideas, memories, experiences, accomplishments, sensations; anything goes). Create a new branch or cluster for each new theme that emerges, using lines to connect the words. Most people experience an “aha moment” after about 7 minutes.
Step 3: 5 minutes. Review your cluster and write for 5 minutes to synthesize your findings. What do you notice? Any patterns? Surprises? What items are you passionate about? You might want to go back and highlight areas you believe will be useful for your personal statement.
Total Time Invested: 10 – 20 minutes. And it’s likely that you’ve uncovered a theme for your essay along with a wealth of supporting examples!