Prewriting is a great way to begin the process of writing your Personal Statement for the CASPA. The personal statement is a required element of your application. There’s no formula to follow, which can be liberating or terrifying. You want to demonstrate your knowledge about the PA profession but keep it from sounding like you’re reading from a PA manual. You want to present your strengths, but you don’t want to sound arrogant. You want to tell some of your story, but not every moment from grade school up to the present.
How can you best approach your personal statement without filling up a garbage can with crumpled sheets of paper, virtual or otherwise? And most importantly, how can you make it perfect?
In her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott tells writers what they can expect from their first attempts. She writes,
For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.
It’s funny because it’s true.
If you take out the expectation of instant perfection, you will be able to breath easier. That constriction in your chest will subside, and you’ll be able to allow yourself space to tinker, wander a bit, and explore your own life’s journey. Remember, this essay is an opportunity to share more about yourself, share things specific to you that aren’t necessarily reflected in your GPA or other types of credentials. Not quite a trip down memory lane, it’s an opportunity to bring the reviewers along for a quick visit to some of the most significant moments in your development.
This is where doing some prewriting exercises can be beneficial. You won’t need to make these prewriting sessions into the meat of your essay; they are a way of getting your writing muscles moving. In so doing, you unleash yourself from making every minute spent on writing “profitable” in the sense that it has to be included in your essay. You can feel your way around and see what jumps out at you along the way.
Here are two strategies to try this week, and we plan to bring you more so you can find a prewriting tool that fits for you. (Still need convincing that prewriting is useful? You can read our first compelling installment here.)
If you are someone who likes color, images, and leans toward non-linear thinking, mind mapping could be just the right strategy for you. Mind mapping is a visual brainstorming strategy. This is probably done most easily with good ol’ paper and markers/pens, but you can get techie and use a graphic program if you’d like. It will probably end up looking like a family tree, but with the branches extending out from the central idea. Here’s an article with graphics if you’d like to see some examples.
An important side note here: Don’t let drawing take precedence over developing ideas. Take it from someone who is distractible, you can easily get caught up in color consistency and doodling when you ought to focus on the descriptors and ideas you want to return to.
Start by taking your main idea [ie. I want to be a PA super bad.]. Draw something that represents it in the center of your page. Next draw a line out to one area you consider important to the main topic [ie. I have assisted in numerous open-heart surgeries.] and write that in a different color or draw something that will make you think of it. Using more colors (because brains like color and it will keep your eyes and brain interested), write down other ideas that come from this area, keeping them to a single word whenever possible, just something to jog your memory.
Repeat this process with different aspects of your main topic.
By the time you’re done you will have many associations and angles off your central idea, and you will be able to easily recollect what they were since you’ve used colors and sketches to aid in retention. You’ll have some areas that have fewer “sub-ideas” which can help you prioritize the ones which yield greater depths to explore.
Much writing is by necessity done alone. That means much of the prewriting you will do is also done alone. But how can you get new brilliant ideas when so much brainstorming is focused on a group setting? Where will the great ideas some from??
The great ideas will come from YOU, my friend! They’re all in there, you jut have to coax them out.
Using a word storm is a simple technique for coaxing out those brilliant ideas and exploring connections between them.
Begin with one word, preferably a broad topic.
Now you break down that topic into smaller topics and associations, one word at a time.
Say, for example, you begin by thinking about being a Physician Assistant.
- Write down Physician Assistant.
- Underneath it, write the things that immediately come into your mind associated with being a PA.
- Now you can take any of the words above and use that word as it’s own word storm. Let’s take “Satisfaction” for a word storm.
- Job security
- Significant industry
- Satisfactory income
- Fulfillment of a dream
You can see that this will help you lay out different directions you can go with your personal statement. By using a word storm, your ideas get to wander wherever they want to go and as you follow where they lead, you’ll discover which themes are recurring, which themes resonate in you most strongly. These are the ones you’ll want to use when you begin writing that shitty first draft.
If you’d like to try an online word storm, here’s a website that has a word storm generator.
Prewriting isn’t the same as writing
Let’s all remember that prewriting is a way to make space for inspiration and to get ideas moving. It is not the actual writing. It’s important to remember this since as you get ideas and want to explore them, you may be tempted to start writing that first draft. That’s great! Start writing it. Just know that you will probably end up with a lot of herky-jerky sentences that jump from one thought to the next without much gentle guidance. That’s the nature of prewriting — you’ve allowed the ideas to go wherever they want. Now that you have them, you’ll need to organize them into something cohesive.
If you want more prewriting options, check back soon for a couple more techniques to try.
PA Trek Coaching offers editing services for personal statement essays! If you’d like a coach to walk through the writing process with you, click on the “Services” tab to find out more.