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Craft a compelling personal essay with the Hero's Journey framework

Crafting a personal essay for your college application presents a unique opportunity to showcase your individual journey, challenges, and triumphs. One compelling way to structure your narrative is through the lens of the Hero’s Journey, a timeless framework popularized by Joseph Campbell. 

This narrative arc, found in myths and stories across cultures, outlines the adventure of the hero as they embark on a journey, face and overcome trials, and ultimately return transformed. By applying this framework to your own life experiences, you can create a captivating and deeply personal essay that resonates with admissions officers. 

It allows you to highlight not just your achievements, but the growth and insights gained through your experiences. This approach invites the reader on an engaging journey, demonstrating your resilience, adaptability, and the unique qualities that you will bring to their campus.

The Hero's Journey

What is it?

The Hero’s Journey, a concept derived from Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” is a narrative framework that outlines the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, a character who goes on an adventure, faces and overcomes crises, and then returns home transformed. 

This journey is divided into three main parts: Departure, Initiation, and Return. Each of these parts encompasses several steps that contribute to the hero’s growth and the story’s progression.

 

Departure

Most colleges require SAT or ACT scores. For homeschoolers, these scores can be even more crucial as they are a common measure of academic ability. Consider taking these tests more than once to improve scores.

1. The Ordinary World: This is where the hero’s normal life before the adventure begins is established. It highlights the hero’s everyday environment, offering a contrast to the extraordinary adventure ahead.

  • Harry Potter Example: Harry lives a mundane and miserable life with the Dursleys, his uncaring aunt, uncle, and cousin, in the ordinary, non-magical world, completely unaware of his magical heritage.
 

2. The Call to Adventure: The hero faces a challenge or adventure that must be undertaken, disrupting the comfort of the Ordinary World.

  • Harry Potter Example: Harry’s call to adventure begins with the arrival of letters from Hogwarts, inviting him to join the magical world as a student.
 

3. Refusal of the Call: The hero hesitates to accept the call due to fear, insecurity, or a sense of duty or obligation to their ordinary life.

  • Harry Potter Example: While Harry himself is eager to leave the Dursleys, his uncle Vernon actively tries to prevent Harry from accepting his call to adventure by hiding the letters and isolating him from the magical world.
 

4. Meeting with the Mentor: The hero encounters a mentor who provides advice, wisdom, or magical aid to help on the journey.

  • Harry Potter Example: Hagrid, the Keeper of Keys at Hogwarts, acts as Harry’s mentor by formally introducing him to the wizarding world, taking him shopping for school supplies, and offering guidance.
 

5. Crossing the First Threshold: The hero fully commits to the adventure, moving from the familiar world into the world of the unknown.

  • Harry Potter Example: Harry crosses the first threshold when he boards the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9¾, leaving the mundane world behind and entering the magical world for the first time.

Initiation

1. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero faces challenges, meets friends, and confronts foes, learning the rules of the new world.

  • Harry Potter Example: Harry faces numerous tests (learning magic, playing Quidditch), gains allies (Ron, Hermione, and other Hogwarts students), and enemies (Draco Malfoy, Professor Snape).
 

2. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero prepares for the central crisis of the adventure, often facing fears or discovering new aspects of themselves.

  • Harry Potter Example: Harry and his friends discover the truth about the Sorcerer’s Stone and decide to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands, leading to their decision to go after it themselves.
 

3. The Ordeal: The hero encounters a major hurdle or obstacle, often experiencing a symbolic death and rebirth.

  • Harry Potter Example: The ordeal occurs in the underground chambers, where Harry faces a series of challenges and ultimately confronts Professor Quirrell and Voldemort to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone.
 

4. Reward (Seizing the Sword): After surviving the ordeal, the hero gains some treasure, knowledge, or power.

  • Harry Potter Example: Harry prevents Voldemort from getting the Stone and learns valuable lessons about love, courage, and the power of self-sacrifice.

Return

1. The Road Back: The hero begins the journey back to their Ordinary World, often with a sense of urgency.

  • Harry Potter Example: As the school year ends, Harry prepares to return to the Dursleys, armed with new knowledge and friendships, yet aware that his life has changed forever.


2. The Resurrection: The hero faces a final test where everything is at stake, and they must use everything they have learned.

  • Harry Potter Example: While the final confrontation with Voldemort over the Stone is the climax, Harry’s ongoing battle with him can be seen as an overarching resurrection theme throughout the series.


3. Return with the Elixir: The hero returns home transformed, with a treasure or lesson to benefit the Ordinary World.

  • Harry Potter Example: Harry returns to the Dursleys with the knowledge that he is a wizard, has a place in the magical world, and is ready to face the future challenges that await him, marking the end of his first cycle of the Hero’s Journey.

Planning your essay

Step 1. Identify the ‘Ordinary World”

Encourage your child to reflect on their life before any significant change or challenge. This could be their everyday routine, their family life, or their community.A homeschool transcript should include course titles, grades, credit hours, and a cumulative GPA. Also, detail the grading scale used.

Step 2. Recognize the ‘Call to Adventure’

Help them identify a moment or series of events that disrupted their status quo. This could be a personal challenge, a family situation, a new opportunity, or a realization they had.

Step 3. Discuss Challenges (‘The Road of Trials’)

Talk about the difficulties they faced along their journey. Emphasize the importance of being honest about struggles and failures, as they are pivotal to the story.

Step 4. Highlight Growth and Learning

Encourage them to think about how these challenges changed them. What did they learn? How did they grow?

Step 5. Identify Mentors and Helpers

Ask them to think about who guided, supported, or inspired them during this journey. This could be a teacher, a family member, a friend, or even a significant event.

Step 6. Describe the ‘Return’

Focus on how they have emerged from their journey. How are they different? What insights or skills have they gained?

Step 7. Connect to Future Goals

Guide them to link their journey to their aspirations and how it has prepared them for college and their future career.

Portfolio Development

A portfolio allows students to display their best work, including research projects, art, coding projects, or any other significant accomplishments.

 

1. Selecting portfolio pieces

Choose a diverse range of work that highlights the student’s skills, interests, and learning journey. Include major projects, written papers, art pieces, scientific experiments, and any other work that showcases their abilities and growth.

2. Organizing the portfolio

Organize the portfolio in a logical and visually appealing manner. Consider categorizing content by subject area (e.g., Science, Mathematics, Literature) or theme (e.g., Environmental Projects, Historical Analysis).

3. Describing each piece

For each piece included in the portfolio, provide a brief description that explains the project’s context, the student’s role, the skills demonstrated, and any outcomes or recognitions received.

4. Reflecting on learning experiences

Include reflections that discuss what the student learned from each project or experience, challenges faced, and how these experiences have contributed to their personal and academic growth.

5. Compiling the portfolio

Compile the portfolio in a digital format (e.g., PDF document, personal website) for easy sharing and navigation. Ensure that the layout is clean, and all links or digital files are accessible and functional.

Get the full Homeschool Personal Essay Guide

Use the Hero's Journey framework to craft your child's story.

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