I put an Annie’s Mac and Cheese in the microwave. The machine appears to be sentient and judgmental. I back away and sit on a hard Ikea chair, noting that I have two minutes available to think about the things left undone in my life.
Why do you do the things you do?
Why do you think the way you do?
These questions were posed in my Bible and Existentialism class as a starting point for our personal statements. A rite of passage for most seniors, writing this essay is how we spend the last fall in our hometowns. Hours are spent quantifying, qualifying, calculating, and researching who you are, and then crafting ‘Who You Are” into 650 words or less. The packable, sendable unit the Common App will then graciously forward to the institution you are hoping, and maybe secretly praying (in those dark muddy hours before sleep), to spend the next four years of your life.
Writing a personal statement has been, surprisingly, one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever written (I often struggle when formality is a task objective), but trying to figure out “Who I Really Am” has sparked my farthest climb up the ladder to self-awareness. I can’t stop thinking. I can’t sleep. My brain won’t relent because it knows that it is going to have to reveal something or create something that I can truthfully point to and say, “Yes. This is me.”
There’s a constant cloud cover that seems to fill the top hemisphere of my brain. This is a fog that makes it hard to come up with the right word when in the middle of a sentence, a fog that muddles up the connection between feeling and description. When trying to be creatively productive, I stand on my toes and strain to see above the clouds to a beyond that must hold some kind of perfect neural net where feelings are connected to the “Right Words” and rhetorical analysis is not such a damn difficult slog. And when frantic fanning clears enough smoke, I am granted little moments of clarity, a few of the “Right Words,” and a greater glimpse of who I am. I hope for more of this clearer visibility before the fire alarm goes off (Nov. 1 or 30, Jan. 1 or 15).
At times, the whole enterprise can seem like a dystopian young adult novel. A personal statement is a sales pitch for a human. “Here, this is everything I am, please let me into your fine establishment so I can produce impressive work products and make your brand even more notable and profitable.” Childhood is an incubation phase, in which I figure out how to best package my passions and invest my human assets for the high return of college acceptance. It can drive some to contemplate complete liquidation.
But forget about that. Write your personal statement for yourself, to better understand who you are. If you never write down what you believe in, you will forget it. This may sound like hyperbole and probably isn’t true for moral imperatives like “don’t kill anyone!” But those little emotional propellers inside your chest cavity that push tears from the corners of your eyes when you read “Beloved” and send long shoots of tightening rage down of your fist-formed fingers after watching a oversexualized Carl’s Jr. commercial; these are feelings that can vaporize when their catalyst is removed. Remember the things you care about. Write them down.
I have not triumphed in the college application process, and this little rumination is not meant to be a mocking mastery brag. I’ve read my personal statement so many times that the ideas that once seemed original now seem tired, drawn out, and just obvious. I often can’t touch it for a few days or I will explode. When I suggest approaching a personal statement as a self-actualizing exercise, I’m not espousing a beautifully written thesis as the end goal. I’m instead advocating for the enlightening tangential Wikipedia wormholes I’ve gone down, I’m praising the moments of clarity amid the fog when lost in free-writing.
I will not have a manifesto by January. But I have a start on a description of who I am. I have something I can cite when asked what my passions are. I am more aware of what I care about. Foremost right now, as the microwave alarm signals completion, I have concluded that I crave White Cheddar Mac & Cheese, and harbor the ambition to own a more comfortable kitchen chair.