Authors: this article was prepared by Nourhan Shaaban, Rana Elkahwagy and Farah Ereiqat
You may be wondering what is the right next step in your education or career. Or you may be confused about how to create a compelling narrative in a personal statement or a cover letter. In this article, we illustrate how you can apply design thinking in one aspect of the college admissions process: the personal statement.
What is Design Thinking?
There is no one definition for design thinking. You can think of it as a helpful and simple process to explore the world. The design thinking process begins by learning about the audience, understanding the audience's needs, brainstorming, exploring a variety of solutions, iterating, and testing solutions. The process is not linear and iteration is key. Businesses, for example, can use this process when designing new products for their customers. We believe that this process is not only helpful when we design for others, but it is also helpful when we design for ourselves. We personally benefited from this process, and we are confident that students and professionals can learn from applying design thinking in how they approach career and educational planning.
Designers often begin by empathizing with the audience they are designing for. They observe, engage and listen to users and clients. In this case, you are designing for yourself. We encourage you to empathize with yourself throughout the process: listen to your own voice, stay non-judgemental, and be open-minded about where this process will lead you.
Start with a question you are curious about. In general, we encourage you to be curious and to take a moment to assess whether you are asking the right question for your needs. Consider how you might be limiting or biasing yourself through how you phrase your question.
To explain what we mean, let us step from the career and educational planning realm for one second and explore a simple example. Say you want to show appreciation for a friend. You could ask: which gift should I buy for my friend? Or you could ask: how do I show my friend that I appreciate them? The former question limits you to gifts, whereas the second question - which is more broad - will allow you to explore a new direction. For example: you could explore going for a walk with your friend, cooking for them, writing a poem, or other forms of appreciation beyond gift-giving.
When you apply the same logic to education and career planning, you will see how sometimes your questions might limit or expand our exploration. Here are examples of some questions we personally considered:
How can I advance in my educational pursuits?
How can I find an interesting challenge?
Should I study or continue with my job?
How can I progress in my career?
How can I gain expertise in a new field?
How can I articulate my experience in a coherent way?
What are my most valued skills? Do these align with the skills I enjoy the most?
Ideate means to come up with as many ideas as possible to answer your question without limiting or editing your imagination. Once you have a clear question in mind, it is time to get creative and come up with ideas. As an example, let us say that your “question” is: how can I tell my story in a personal statement?
Here are some tools that could help you in the ideation phase:
Tool 1: Create a Mind Map:
Mind maps are a great visual tool that can help you generate new ideas, brainstorm, and find new connections. Once you have a specific question in mind, start creating a mind map. Here are some ideas to get you started in order to write a compelling personal statement: what are your strengths and why? What are your weaknesses and why? What are your dreams? What defines you? What is important for you? What are your values? What are you proud of? Do you have a role model and why? What are your skills? What are you curious about? What are some moments or stories in your life that have had a lasting impact on you?
Every idea you write might inspire another thought in you: an event, a feeling, or a person. Write it all down in your mind map. Be mindful and notice patterns.
Illustration of a simple mind map created by the authors
Tool 2: “Yes and” Game:
It is common in theatrical improvisation to use what is called the “yes, and” technique. The idea behind “yes, and…” is to accept what others are sharing while expanding on it in a constructive way. Find a friend you trust who might be willing to do this exercise with you. Share your question and mind map with your friend, and use this conversation as a brainstorming session. Your friend might generate new ideas with you and might ask great questions that could help clarify your own biases and assumptions. Note however that this is not the time for critique or shutting down ideas; it is time to create, brainstorm, and explore in a non-judgmental space. You might be surprised to find that expressing your ideas out loud can help you make them more coherent and concrete.
Tool 3: Craft a Life Graph
In this exercise, you sketch your “life graph” made of moments of emotional highs and lows. If you had 10 minutes to explain your life story to someone, through its emotional highs and lows, what moments would you choose? When were you happiest? When did you feel most inspired? When did you feel most challenged?
Illustration of a simple life graph created by the authors
Now that you’ve framed your question and generated ideas, you might consider using what you learned and yourself and your own internal compass to narrow down ideas to a few options. For example, you might have generated different versions/outlines of a personal narrative that are true to you. Imagine 3 different options that you could pursue, and sketch out these possibilities on paper. Maybe create actual outlines of how the personal statements may look like, or write out the summary.
Make sure you consider “reality” in this step. While we encourage you to be ambitious, consider where you are now, your resources including time and skills, and your confidence level. Consider if the options you have generated actually feel true to you and make sense for where you are in life now.
Pick one of those options and start “testing” it in real life. This could mean taking a stab at a personal statement to see how it reads. It could mean that you take an internship or an online class to explore a specific career.
The design thinking process is not perfect. It is also not linear. It is a way to help us define what we are up against, give us the space to be creative in how we design our lives, and help us experiment quickly with things we are curious about. Remember, you can always go back to redefining, re-ideating, and re-prototyping.
Beyond a personal statement, what other aspects of your career or education do you think you can apply this process to?
To learn more about this process, check out these resources: